The Civil War was America’s most costly war with some 360,222 Union and 258,000 Confederate lives lost. Many historians put the death toll higher, but regardless, the number of Civil War casualties exceeds the nation’s loss in all its other wars combined — the two World Wars, the Korean and Vietnamese Wars and subsequent wars right up through conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Memorial Day had its origin as Decoration Day following that most horrible and costly war, dating back to April 25th, 1866 when a former chaplain in the Confederate Army accompanied a group of women from Columbus, Mississippi to Friendship Cemetery — the burial ground for about 1600 men who died in the Battle of Shiloh — for the purpose of honoring the dead with decorations of flowers. At that time, Columbus, like the rest of the South, was occupied by Union Army forces, and some townspeople were fearful of creating new animosity, assuming that the decorations would favor Confederate over Union graves.
The women had no such intention, and in decorating the graves of both sides equally their action was the catalyst for a national reconciliation movement. At the time the New York Herald published a tribute, noting: “The women of Columbus, Mississippi, have shown themselves impartial in their offerings to the memory of the dead. They strewed flowers alike on the graves of the Confederate and of the Union soldiers.”
Memorial Day, as Decoration Day gradually came to be known, originally honored those lost while fighting in the Civil War. When the United States became embroiled in World War I and World War II, the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in subsequent wars. With the observance of Memorial Day being inconsistent from state to state, finally in 1968 Congress declared Memorial Day as a federal holiday.
Hardly a year goes by without a commemoration of some war memorial event anniversary. October 4, 2018 commemorated 25 years since U.S. forces suffered the Black Hawk Down defeat in Somalia. September 1, 2019 commemorated the 80th anniversary of the commencement of World War II, which officially began when Germany invaded Poland. May 4, 2020 was the 75th anniversary of VE Day, when the guns fell silent at the end of that war in Europe. August 15, 2020 will mark the 75th anniversary of the end of fighting in the Pacific theater, when Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allies, effectively ending World War II. November 11, 2021 will mark the 100th anniversary of the burial of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
A discussion of Memorial Day would just not be complete without appreciating the significance of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, formally established on what was then known as Armistice Day, three years after the end of World War I. Congress had approved the burial of an unidentified American soldier who had fallen on a battlefield in France at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The Tomb of the Unknown Solider would come to be considered the most hallowed grave at Arlington Cemetery — the most sacred military cemetery in the United States.
And so it was on November 11, 1921, that the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was consecrated in the presence of President Warren G. Harding and other government, military, and international dignitaries. That Unknown Soldier from World War I was buried with highest honors, lowered to his final resting place on top of a two-inch layer of soil brought from France — that he might rest forever atop the earth on which he died.
The selection process for the World War II Unknown proved more difficult than that of World War I, since American soldiers had fought on three continents. Then the process was interrupted by the Korean War, which resulted in numerous deaths who could not be identified. Finally on May 28, 1958, caskets bearing the Unknowns of World War II and the Korean War arrived in Washington. The caskets were rotated such that each unknown serviceman rested on the “Lincoln catafalque,” a raised platform in the Capitol Rotunda that held President Lincoln’s casket in April 1865. Two days later on May 30, then the official date of Memorial Day, those Unknowns were transported to Arlington, where they were interred in the plaza beside their WW I comrade.
Due to the advances in DNA identification technology, most every Vietnam War casualty recovered could be identified. Yet with so many “missing in action” it was decided that the crypt designated for the Vietnam Unknown could remain empty. It was rededicated on September 17, 1999 to honor all missing U.S. service members from the Vietnam War, with the inscription on the crypt reading, “Honoring and Keeping the Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”
The inscribed words on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of “Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known but to God” are an uplifting reminder that all those who died for the American cause should have a special place in our hearts as they do in God’s. Anyone who visits the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year regardless of weather by special armed Tomb Guard sentinels cannot but be humbled and reminded of what Lincoln said at Gettysburg, “…that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Some U.S. military engagements were ill-advised and history shows that the instances of injustice were probably greater from actions taken by Washington politicians and bureaucrats than by the military in the field. For instance, the government’s willingness to authorize and deploy American soldiers in Vietnam without clear objectives and a strategy for victory — which put American lives in harm’s way and cost 58,220 lives — was the great injustice of the Vietnam War. In Iraq, President Obama’s political decision to withdraw almost all U.S. military forces by the end of 2011 directly led to the injustice of reversal of hard-fought gains made by the military in the prior eight years, and the rise of ISIS and growing Iranian influence in Iraq.
Over a million Americans have given their lives in the Civil War and in defending U.S. interests in conflicts large and small. And while remembering those people is a central purpose of this holiday, Memorial Day takes on its deepest meaning when we connect it with our roots.
Americans were unique in sacrificing their treasure and giving their lives to found the first country in history establishing that all people have natural rights that come from God rather than from rulers or government. The Declaration of Independence affirmed the equality of all people and that they were endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, when Americans sacrificed their lives in military service, we should remember that it was not just to defend the United States, but it was also to uphold the natural rights and spiritual values associated with the nation’s founding that provide inspiration for others worldwide.
There were times and places in human history when there were nation states of cultural achievement, virtue, and efflorescence, such as in Periclean Athens, in the Florence of the Medicis, and in England of Elizabeth and Shakespeare. But none were founded the way America was — that is, by a collection of the nation’s most learned statesmen, well-versed in classics of law and political philosophy, who prayerfully approached drafting the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and then the U.S. Constitution in 1787. The Constitution provided a charter for an unprecedented arrangement of governmental institutions that would provide effective government while mitigating corruption and abuse of power and also protecting the citizens’ unalienable God-given rights. The Bill of Rights, an integral part of the Constitution, enabled people living in America to rise to levels closer to the divine image in which all were created than they would have under any government previously conceived.
Writing about the benefits of the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson stated, “We feel that we are acting under obligations not confined to the limits of our own society. It is impossible not to be sensible that we are acting for all mankind.” In only two centuries since that time, almost every nation has come to accept the need and value of having a constitution, regardless of differences of culture, history, and legal heritage. Most of the world’s constitutions have been written in the last 75 years. As constitutions get drafted and revised, the Constitution of the United States continues to be the guiding template and a source of inspiration and principles.
Yet another aspect of celebrating Memorial Day is recognizing the example set by Americans in how they treated their vanquished foes.
The respect that General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP), and the occupying American forces displayed after Japan’s surrender astonished and won over many of the Japanese people. They had assumed the victorious Americans would execute their beloved emperor and plunder and treat them in ways similar to what Japanese soldiers did to those they had conquered in China, Korea and Southeast Asia.
One of the big changes that General MacArthur oversaw required the postwar Japanese government to initiate the drafting of a new constitution. Wisely and in the interest of cultural respect and continuity, MacArthur suggested that the Japanese exercise the provision in the country’s existing Meiji constitution to amend that document with four requirements revolving around democratic rule, judicial review, and disarmament. After a number of revisions, the new constitution that was accepted created a government closer the British-style of parliamentary government than the American system.
In addition to overseeing the rewriting of the Japanese constitution, MacArthur also required that new laws and mandates be enacted to bring about land reform — so as to broaden private property ownership; and to break up and restructure business conglomerates — known as the Zaibatsu — to provide more competition, fairness, and opportunity.
What was remarkable about the U.S. defeat and reorganization of Japan was that American actions were conducted in such a way that helped the Japanese to become a more formidable economic competitor at America’s own expense, but that also brought about respect and friendship between the two countries that has remained ever since.
In Europe after armistice, the war-indebted United States launched the Marshall Plan that gave some $135 billion of grant aid in current dollar value that helped reconstruct war-devastated regions in Western Europe. Eighteen countries received aid and initiatives largely targeted the rebuilding of the industrial base. And similar to our help to the Japanese, U.S. generosity gave Europeans a leg up on the U.S. with the building of state-of-the-art factories and facilities that were in many cases more efficient than what then existed in the U.S.
In sum, Memorial Day means more than remembering and honoring those who died in military service to the country. It means connecting with a heritage that began with a courageous and faithful group of founders, who risked their lives for the birth of freedom and the establishment of America as a “city on a hill.” It also means remembering all who subsequently died for their nation and its constitutionally protected freedoms. And finally it commemorates those who paid the most, such as those who died in the Civil War, and “the greatest generation” involved in World War II, who — after experiencing the loss of so many lives to assure victory for the Allied nations — then sacrificed more to rebuild and preserve the independence of its former enemies. Memorial Day reminds us that in all of human history, America is indeed unique and remarkable.