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The History and Legacy of Memorial Day

By Daniel de Gracia and Sarah Ann Hunt

Denis Edward O’Brien was attending seminary at St. John’s in Little Rock, Arkansas when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The events of December 7, 1941 moved him to join the Marine Corps at the tender age of 18. As he would later write, “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 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 protestor to burn the flag.”

The history of Memorial Day dates back to May 30, 1868 when the Union Army issued General Order No. 11, commanding surviving Union soldiers to honor the memory of their departed comrades by placing flowers on the grave sites of the fallen. The tradition held as “Decoration Day” – though it was sometimes unofficially called “Memorial Day” – for a century, until it would be officially re-named in 1967 and its traditional date moved to the last Monday in May. Since 1987, Senator Daniel Inouye has sought to return Memorial Day to its historic date of May 30th.

Now, as we enjoy the blessings of liberty on this year’s Memorial Day, we must take care to always remember that the American experience exists today because of the sacrifices made by our fighting men and women. Ever since the day our Founding Fathers decided to declare their independence, there have been Americans willing to stand guard to protect our way of life, and their courage must serve as an eternal demand upon all of us to make and keep ourselves a nation worth defending. According to the late tennis great Arthur Ashe, “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”

To us – a son and a daughter of former military officers with relatives still on active duty –Memorial Day is a deeply spiritual and emotional moment of pause. Duty, honor, and country are not merely words to our fathers; they are our fathers. Upon our fathers’ shoulders, and the shoulders of countless other uniformed men and women, rests the weight of this great Republic. Their service fills our hearts with the desire to make sure that, here at home, only the best policies and only the most patriotic values endure.

Our fathers believed America’s people were so important and their country so wonderful that it was worth protecting with their lives, even amidst controversy and unpopular wars. This patriotism knows no boundaries, knows no limits, and knows no defeatism. This patriotism is one that stands the test of time and lives beyond generations. Thomas Paine, one of our great Founding Fathers, once said, “These are the times that try men’s soul. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

It is seldom among popular sentiment to go forth and forge into battle. However, our soldiers continue to do so to create and sustain the life we are afforded today. They are our unseen and gallant heroes. Heroes who have been burdened with the memory of war, have been burdened with their stolen innocence, and have been burdened by the wounds from battle. These are our true leaders, our true patriots. That is the meaning of Memorial Day. We therefore oppose efforts by well-meaning but ultimately misguided public officials to divide Hawaii on the basis of race, because our fathers fought for one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty for all. We oppose the expansion of government power and the onset of an oppressive tax regime because our fathers fought to defeat communism and fascism abroad and protect freedom at home. We oppose the destruction and dissolution of the United States military forces in order to pay for the establishment of meaningless pork barrel projects, because we know that it sometimes takes force to defend our way of life. These are the principles our fathers fought for, these are the principles we stand by, and these are the principles that make sound policy for elected officials – if they are willing to do them.

We love America far too much to allow bad public policy to destroy her. If we could somehow reach behind the wall of the grave and ask the fallen what Memorial Day meant to them, they would likely tell us, “It is not a day to remember what we were, but a day to remember what America should always be – free.”

Let us therefore remember the dead, honor the living, and let freedom and liberty be forever our watchwords.