Decoration Day -- The Measure of Sacrifice
When I think about the concepts, themes and principles that helped form
my character, I think of traditions. I love traditions. They give our
lives structure, strength and a sense of stability. Most of the
traditions I remember revolve around holidays.
My mother called it “Decoration Day”; for most of her life,
it was May 30. Decoration Day was first observed on May 30, 1868 in order
to encourage decorating the graves of soldiers who had died during the
Civil War. In 1971, Congress included Memorial Day as part of the Monday
holiday law. Still, every year my mother decorated her father’s
grave and her husband’s grave — on May 30th. It was an important
I remember marching in the parade down our main street on Decoration Day.
I was a Boy Scout. In high school, I was in the band that marched in the
parade. During my senior year I was the drum major — I led the band!
Uniforms, flags, crowds, music, food... and remembrance.
My father participated in the tradition each year by reading a speech to
us: the Gettysburg address (that from these honored dead we take
increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full
measure of devotion), Washington’s farewell address, one of
FDR’s fireside chats, Lincoln’s second inaugural address
(With malice toward none, with charity for all...).
In 1961 my dad read President Kennedy’s
inaugural address: Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or
ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship,
support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success
(I must have missed the speech a few months earlier - I was just a kid.)
Yep; one year my sister and I memorized the Gettysburg address.
It is not at all surprising that, half a century later, I have such a
reverence for the power and beauty of words.
The Memorial Day celebration at the Capitol each year focuses on those
who have died in the war on terror — as well it should. It is a
terrible price to pay because a handful of maniacs want to rule the
Middle East and defeat the United States — and are willing to murder millions of innocent people
in order to do so.
During the initial invasion of Iraq, about 125 American soldiers died.
But let’s step back and take a broader look at the measure of
sacrifice. About half that many soldiers died during the Vietnam war...
every week — every week, for twelve years!
World War II took the lives of over 250,000 American soldiers. The
estimated number of combat-related deaths for all countries involved in
the war ranges from 20 million to over 40 million.
One war; forty million deaths.
My mother said that one of the main differences between the Vietnam War
and World War II was that, during her war, everyone was involved in the
war... every day. Even if you did not listen to the radio or read the
newspaper, you could not avoid the war — be it a drive to sell war
bonds at work, news of the death of someone you knew, or the limited
ability to buy a washing machine, gasoline, or even butter. Every day, it
was all around you. You were a part of the war, like it or not.
My parents had gotten married in 1940. My father was a doctor; he was
planning to start his own practice; in 1941 my parents were looking at
houses... planning a family. Then came Pearl Harbor. A month
later, he and hundreds of his colleagues were on a ship to... to who
knows where. They would not tell him, even when they were a thousand
miles at sea.
Six weeks later, he was in Australia. He did not step on U.S. soil until
four years later. And, of course, he was one of the lucky ones.
But again, he and his colleagues were among the lucky ones.
There was no Internet back then — no e-mail. There were telephones;
but a phone call back home was out of the question. My mother wrote
letters to my father several times a week. But only about half of those
letters found their way to him. My dad wrote to my mother, his sister and
his parents regularly. I have several of the letters he wrote to my aunt.
(She was a pack-rat extraordinaire!) Still, my mother did not hear his
voice for over four years.
We are all capable of much more than we realize. Our parents proved
that. They, and the generations that preceded them, represent the
measure of sacrifice. They are the ones we decorate on Memorial Day.
This afternoon I think I will read the letter to Mrs. Lydia Bixby that
President Lincoln wrote upon learning of the death of her sons in the
Civil War. (Steven Spielberg used the letter in “Saving Private
Ryan,” the 1998 movie that captured the sacrifices made on
D-Day.) You are welcome to join me.
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864
To Mrs. Bixby, Boston, Mass.
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of
the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five
sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.
I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine that would
attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I
cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in
the thanks of the republic they died to save.
I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your
bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved
lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a
sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours very sincerely and respectfully,
The measure of sacrifice.
Internet version of this essay
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