I N MAY 1945, the German army, known then as the Wehrmacht, issued a final statement acknowledging its defeat after "almost six years of heroic fighting," during which "The German soldier, true to his oath, has in the service of his nation achieved feats that will never be forgotten." The statement, which of course leaves out quite a lot, concludes thus: "The dead compel us to unconditional loyalty, to obedience and discipline toward the Fatherland, bleeding from countless wounds."
On this Memorial Day 70 years later, many of the peoples whose nations fought that war (including Germans) have long since concluded that we owe our war dead no such thing. We owe them lasting honor for what they give up for their country, for lives cut short in youth or destroyed by physical or mental wounds. But the greater debt is for certain freedoms defended — freedom from the demand for loyalty without moral boundaries, from unquestioning obedience to higher orders and from discipline without law or mercy.
The debt we owe is still growing today, and it is beyond our means to repay in full. Abraham Lincoln stated it succinctly at Gettysburg with his series of negatives: "We can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground." As Lincoln had it, the greater part of that work had been done by the war dead, and completing it was more than a matter of speeches, ceremonies and memorial statuary. It was, and is, a steady and abiding commitment to government chosen by, conducted by and dedicated to the good of its people, and a willingness to sacrifice to ensure the survival of that form of government — including the minimal but often neglected obligation to pay attention to what our leaders are doing, to listen and speak out and vote. In short, to make the thing work.
And, we might add, to come together for common pleasures that reaffirm our identity as one people. Often on Memorial Day people complain about the inattention to the holiday’s deeper meaning as millions of Americans take to the beaches or the woods or the charcoal grill. But that is life, and it is freedom, the kind of things those at war write home about, the normality they longed to return to after living so long in what one U.S. pilot called “a world of death.” There will be homages today, many of them. There will also be the pursuit of happiness, and perhaps those who are being honored wouldn’t mind that at all.
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