Memorial Day is a very solemn day. It is a day that New Jersey folks and all Americans should celebrate. It is a day to remember those who sacrificed and died in our nation’s service.
America has participated in 78 military actions — some can best be described as “skirmishes.” But if one focused on world wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, 635,500 Americans were killed, and of those, 21,733 were from New Jersey. If you were an adult during the last three wars, as me, you may have lost a family member, a college or high-school classmate or a close friend.
The day was originally dedicated to honor Civil War soldiers — it was expanded after WW I to honor all who served our nation. Today, of course, we honor all our men and women who died and who continue to die defending our freedom.
Do you remember when you were little? I do. We decorated the spokes in our bike with red and blue decoration 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 one in four Americans know what Memorial Day is all about. And less than 5 percent 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. Perhaps Franklin Roosevelt summarized it best in his “Four Freedoms” speech. They fought and died for freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
We live in a wonderful country. To paraphrase Willie Nelson: “It is wonderful to be an American.” Do we have warts? Have we made mistakes? Has every international encounter and war been necessary? We have blemishes for sure, and several wars should never been fought. But we remain the beacon for the world.
Consider just two critical hallmarks that set us apart from other nations.
We were the first nation to truly separate church and state. Some argue that we should change this, but they are wrong. Our separation doctrine does not mean we are against religion, rather it has a much deeper meaning. Just view today’s world and history and one can acknowledge that separation of church and state is truly critical to our form of democracy and to individual religious beliefs.
Secondly, we were the first universal nation. No nation has ever invited such a diverse group of ethnicities and religions to its shores. Yes, we stumbled in the past and we still do. But, our principles are strong. And even when blind prejudice raised its ugly head – as it still does — we have succeeded. We have and should continue to welcome the “huddled masses,” and continue to fight against the false idols of bigotry, racism, and unbridled nationalism.
A thought about a current wart. Addressing it will not make America great again. We are a great nation, but we can be better. We need to correct our election laws. Specifically:
We need to fix the way we fund election campaigning. In the early 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt was a leader in correcting campaign financing. Today, money buys too much — the Citizens United Supreme Court decision is bad for America. We need to get money out of elections.
We need to standardize the way we register to vote. Today, too many states limit voter participation.
We need to cease gerrymandering so only certain parties can win in certain voting districts. Today, for example, only 50 seats in Congress are considered competitive.
Finally, we need a weekend “National Day for Voting” so every American can find it easy to vote — and then celebrate being an American.
What better way to honor the brave men and women who died for this nation than to ensure that all Americans have an equal 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. In each visit — whether in Luxemburg, or Belgium or Normandy — a tear is shed, and a prayer uttered. Nothing is more moving then viewing where our courageous citizens and our allies ended the brutality of Nazism. Too often we fail to remember these lives.
Maybe some have lost a spouse or 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 and Marines who throughout our history ensured our life, liberty and our pursuit of happiness.
Lincoln said it best at Gettysburg: “… that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to the cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion. That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that the government of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from this earth.”