I am blessed to live in the United States, the land of privilege and opportunity. Residents of New Jersey, as much as any other state, experience those privileges and opportunities in abundance. They do not come cheaply or without struggle and/or sacrifice. Memorial Day is a very solemn day when we as a nation and a state take note of the sacrifices made to provide, protect, and ensure those privileges and opportunities.
It is a day that New Jersey residents and all other Americans should celebrate. It is a day to remember those who sacrificed and died in service to our nation. Given the magnitude of the challenges we are facing this year, more needs to be done to remember those who sacrificed and died for our country.
The United States has participated in 78 wars. While some can best be described as “skirmishes,” if we focus on World War I, World War II, the Korean Conflict, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, then 635,500 Americans have been killed.
Of that total, 21,733 soldiers were from New Jersey. Again, the number of lives lost is just a proxy for the sacrifices made by so many in service to our nation. If you were an adult during the past three wars, you likely lost a family member, someone you went to college or high school with, a neighbor or a close friend. You also likely know someone who bears the physical scars inflicted in protecting the interests of this country, while thousands more in New Jersey and elsewhere bear mental and emotional scars that are far too often unnoticed.
Memorial Day was originally dedicated to honor Civil War soldiers. It was expanded after WWI to honor all who have made sacrifices in service to our nation. Today, of course, we honor all our men and women who died defending our freedom.
Do you remember when you were young? I do. We decorated the spokes on our bike with red and blue crepe paper and joined a parade — joyfully and proudly waving a small American flag.
People of all ages — children, men and women who had fought in wars, and just everyday Americans — would participate in local parades. We arrived at a designated memorial, said a few prayers and listened to speeches remembering our brave soldiers.
Today, only 28% of Americans know what Memorial Day is about, and less than 5% actually plan to observe it.
Why did these brave warriors give their lives? The answer is surely enumerated in the first 10 Amendments to our Constitution — otherwise known as the Bill of Rights — the basic protection of our freedoms as citizens and residents of the United States. But perhaps President Franklin Delano Roosevelt summarized it best in his Four Freedoms speech: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
Do we have warts? Have we made mistakes? Has every international encounter or war been necessary? We have blemishes. Among them, several wars that may have been suspect and unnecessary in that their aims were unclear or support at home was less than desirable or both. Unfortunately, current political and partisan actions are challenging our long-held status as a world leader, and our nation’s image as a model of integrity and fairness. Still, we remain a beacon of hope and opportunity all around the world. Consider two critical hallmarks that have historically set us apart from other nations and that need to be encouraged and celebrated:
- We were the first nation to separate church and state. Some argue that we should change this, but I think they are wrong. Our separation doctrine does not mean we are against religion. It has a much deeper meaning. Just view history and today’s world (and even elements within our country) to see that separation of church and state must be maintained as it is critical to our form of democracy, where no one religion assumes primacy over others.
- We were the first “universal” nation. No other nation has ever invited (and welcomed) such a diverse group of people and religions to its shores. Yes, we stumbled in the past, and we still do on occasion. However, our foundation is strong. Even when prejudice raises its ugly head — as it still does on occasion — we have prevailed as a people and as a nation. We have and must continue to welcome the “huddled masses,” find a pathway to citizenship for “Dreamers” and other immigrants and continue to fight the false gods of bigotry, racism and unbridled nationalism.
Making a good nation even better
Given the sacrifices made by so many of our nation’s residents, they deserve a country that represents the best that it can be for all who reside here. Unfortunately, that remains an elusive goal for many. Still, a better country is well within our reach, beginning with just a few reforms.
We need to correct our election laws and avoid self-serving, political and prejudicial actions. Specifically, we need to:
- fix the way we fund election campaigns. In the early 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt was a leader in reforming campaign financing. Today, money buys too much and plays far too big a role in our democracy. The Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court is bad for America. We need to lessen the influence of money on our elections or get it out completely.
- standardize the way we register to vote. Today, too many states limit voter participation, and several states seem intent on making voting even more difficult. Instead of encouraging voting, some wish to limit it for personal, political or party benefit. Indeed, people of the same ethnicity or race may have differing voting privileges, depending on where they live.
- cease gerrymandering, so only certain parties can win in certain voting districts. Today, for example, only 50 of the 435 seats in Congress are considered truly competitive.
- establish a national holiday for voting and expanded pre-Election Day venues and other modes of voting, so every American can easily vote.
It should be noted that our two New Jersey senators are leaders in sponsoring legislation to fix some of these problems.
What better way to honor the brave men and women who sacrificed and died for this nation than to ensure that all Americans have an equal voice in determining the future of the country via a vote for freedom?
A final reflection. Have you ever visited the cemeteries in Europe where many of our soldiers are buried? My wife and I have. During each visit — whether in Luxembourg or Belgium or Normandy in northern France a tear is shed and a prayer uttered. Nothing is more moving than viewing where our courageous citizens and our allies ended the brutality of Nazism and extremism.
Maybe some of you lost a father, mother, brother, sister, spouse, son or daughter. To you, a special prayer on this Memorial Day. To the rest of us, let’s simply remember the unselfish sacrifice of those soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and members of the Coast Guard who throughout our history have given so much to ensure our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Greatness is well within our reach, and it is the only respectful homage for those who have sacrificed so much in service to the country.