Monday, May 28, 2007

MEMORIAL DAY. The words that ring in my ears this Memorial Day are not from a Memorial Day speech. They're from FDR's proclamation of Bill of Rights Day, December 15, 1941, in honor of the document's 150th anniversary.

A week earlier, America had declared war on Japan, which was followed by Germany's declaration of war against America. Roosevelt alluded to the new national crisis, and to the sacrifices it would entail, in his proclamation:
Those who have long enjoyed such privileges as we enjoy forget in time that men have died to win them. They come in time to take these rights for granted and to assume their protection is assured. We, however, who have seen these privileges lost in other continents and other countries can now appreciate their meaning to those people who enjoyed them once and now no longer can. We understand in some measure what their loss can mean. And by that realization we have come to a clearer conception of their worth to us, and to a stronger and more unalterable determination that here in our land they shall not be lost or weakened or curtailed.

It is to give public expression and outward form to that understanding and that determination that we are about to commemorate the adoption of the Bill of Rights and rededicate its principles and its practice.
Our current Administration, prosecuting its own, very different war, does not often nor so eloquently allude to the liberties at the heart of the American experiment. Yet out of all the other spurs that drive us to war and sacrifice, these "privileges" are the most meaningful. Without them we would be just another clan fighting to keep, or increase, our land and possessions. That might be worth a barbecue, but it wouldn't be worth a single soldier's grave.

But if we believe America is more than that, and that the principles of its founding are still our principles, then those who have died in its wars will command our special respect. Whether they served because they were patriots, or because they wanted to prove themselves, or because they were drafted; whether we agree with the individual mission -- whether they agreed with it, or even thought about it; whether they fell at Anzio, or at Cinfuegos, or at Khe Sanh, or at Fallujah, they served under the flag of the United States of America, whose cause is ours, and died for it.

Whether the dead themselves can benefit from the consolation of remembrance is a theological question beyond my abilities. Following FDR, though, I would say that it can do us some lasting good to remember the object of their sacrifices.

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