The concept of national sacrifice is not uniquely American, not by a long shot. But no people in history have made it their most cherished cause, as we have.
As we mark Memorial Day weekend, we honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country, or as Abraham Lincoln put it, "the last full measure of devotion." The idea of laying down your life willingly to further the cause of freedom did not begin and end with the United States, but it will forever be a cornerstone of our national identity. And so we Americans have marked it with an annual holiday.
Unlike other nations, ours was founded on individual sacrifice. Most of the elder nations of Europe and Asia were formed through conquest, division or the gradual coalescing of a common ethnicity.
Not our United States. To break from their original tyrannical host, American colonists put their lives at risk, first by speaking out against the crown and invoking retribution, then on the field of battle against overwhelming odds. Their willingness to give up the very freedom they sought was the ultimate gamble for the ultimate prize, and once won, has remained the centerpiece of our democratic ideal.
Our national leaders remain martyred heroes, willing to yield all they hold dear to secure their own self determination. "Give me liberty or give me death," intoned Patrick Henry. He and his countrymen meant it, and so do we, to this day. The very idea of living in subjugation at the hand of another is unimaginable to Americans.
That quest for freedom has been renewed many times since, forged harder through war, words and the never-ending pursuit of victory over the various enemies of human dignity. In the Civil War, more than 600,000 citizen soldiers from North and South willingly shed their blood for competing causes to preserve their beloved homelands. The victorious cause so nobly advanced kept our Union whole and helped bring a race of Americans out of bondage.
Hundreds of thousands since have repeated that feat, between the hedgerows of Europe, in the jungles of Southeast Asia and on the desert sands of the Middle East. They have fought, died and were buried in strange, faraway lands to secure the future of a world they would never see again.
But these weren't the wars of ancient chivalry, battles with tin soldiers lined up a neat little row as spectators watched from a nearby hill. America's battles have involved us all, mothers and fathers sending their young men off to brutal, violent campaigns, knowing they might not come back. Yet they hung gold stars in their windows for their lost sons, proudly knowing that they, too, had given all they had to offer for their nation.
Not all sacrifice has been suffered in battle. Our history is filled with those who gave of themselves through their labors, their words and their ideals. The original pioneers of the West endured hardships to blaze a path for others. So did generations of immigrants who blindly crossed oceans to bring their cultures and heritage into the melting pot of freedom. So did marchers in the quest for civil rights, enduring beatings and imprisonment to clear a better path for those who would follow.
But the ultimate sacrifice of wartime service that we celebrate this holiday remains unique among selfless pursuits. And so, on the last Monday each May, we gather in our town squares, churches, parks and cemeteries to pay tribute to those who chose liberty over life. We cook out and watch parades as the bands play marching tunes that remind us of our triumphs and why they matter so much.
The idea is not to glorify war, though no one can deny the role it has played in our nation's existence. Yet we retain the hope that someday, the war to end all wars will be just that, and that our military graveyards will remain quiet havens for memories, where the soil is no longer turned over for a new generation of fallen heroes.
Someday, the last bullet in the last battle of the last war will signal the ultimate victory that will bring a lasting peace and set the roll call of Memorial Day forever in stone, with a fixed number of names, ranks and dates that will grow no longer.
Yet as we well know, we're not there yet. The paradox of life is that we can only achieve true peace by conquering the enemies of that peace. So brave men and women serve today in far-off lands to bring freedom to the oppressed. Their work is not done, and may not be for some time. The enemies we fight now don't march behind a flag in lines of battle, and our victories are less obvious, even to those who earn them.
But their sacrifice is no less noble than that of their own fathers, grandfathers and great-greats before them. Memorial Day is our tribute to all who swallowed their fear, clutched their weapons and charged ahead at Yorktown and Gettysburg, Havana and Verdun, Normandy and Iwo Jima, Inchon and Saigon, Iraq and Afghanistan.
We salute all of them for offering the supreme act of patriotism: To serve and sacrifice for a cause greater than one's own life. There is no greater gift to give or purpose to serve, and all who have done so will forever be remembered for it.