Memorial Day is a day to honor men and women who went into battle but did not survive. With their lives, they paid the ultimate price.
The late U.S. Army General Norman Schwarzkopf once said, “It doesn’t take a hero to order men into battle. It takes a hero to be one of those men who goes into battle.”
I cannot imagine the feeling of going into a battle knowing you may not live to see the sunrise.
Some at different times have had a fatal premonition of pending death, but most go to battle with the attitude of another late U.S. Army general, George Patton, who said that the goal was to make the enemy pay the ultimate price.
Even so, only those who live in denial ever sling a rifle over their shoulder and step into enemy territory without some fear of death.
Even with all the training soldiers have, until the bullets start flying, no one knows what soldiers are made of until they are battle tested.
Napoleon Bonaparte said, “Valor is a gift. Those having it never know for sure whether they have it till the test comes. And those having it never know for sure if they will have it when the next test comes.”
You cannot bankroll valor. You can’t put it in a holding tank and call it forth on demand. You can’t categorically say what you will or will not do in all situations of war.
However, people of valor are usually people of character, people with a moral compass, people with a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong.
They are patriotic. They love America. They love freedom. They don’t want to see America grow complacent about her freedoms, lest she lose them, lest the sacrifices of those who have fought and given their lives in all previous wars all come to naught.
“That will never happen,” you say. Those were the last words of every famous world dynasty.
Through the millennium many have fallen. America is still relatively young. Even so, signs of great stress are beginning to show on her landscape.
Memorial Day is important because we give pause from our busy lives and are asked to think about our freedom and the price paid by men and women for it. The moment we take it for granted is the moment it will begin to slip away.
In the “Soldier’s Faith,” Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a U.S. Supreme Court justice who fought in the U.S. Civil War, writes of going to the funeral of the colonel of his regiment, the Twentieth Massachusetts.
He said the church was empty. No one remembered the old man they were burying, no one except Holmes and a scant few who sat next to him.
Holmes said to himself, “The Twentieth has shrunk to a skeleton, a ghost, a memory, a forgotten name which we other old men alone keep in our hearts.”
Holmes goes on to make a point that it takes someone special to be a soldier. Soldiers don’t put on the uniform with any expectations of being thanked. They don’t expect anyone to treat them like heroes.
He believes these individuals learn to be content just doing their jobs, which happens to be a job that is a service to their country, a defense of the greatest nation on earth.
They have to be content carrying out the orders of their commanding officer, living by the code of honor and learning to be a band of brothers.
Because they do their jobs and because many have paid the ultimate price, you and I can fly from city to city without fear. We can have basic human rights, freedom to worship, freedom to speak, freedom to assemble, freedom to vote.
Charles Province, founder of The George S. Patton Jr. Historical Society, said it well. “It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us the freedom to demonstrate. It is the soldier, who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protester to burn the flag.”
If there’s one holiday every American and every person in America ought to acknowledge, it’s Memorial Day.
Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Why would we ever allow love that deep to go unacknowledged?
Michael Helms is pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson, Georgia. His writings can also be found on his blog, Finding Our Way.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series of articles for Memorial Day 2017.
The previous articles in the series were:
3 Principles to Help You Navigate Memorial Day Service
This Memorial Day, Don’t Blur Line Between God, Nation
Michael Helms is pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson, Georgia.