On this Memorial Day weekend 2016, a time when we honor those who sacrificed so that we might run free, we take note that Memorial Day observations are in decline, with fewer than 5 per cent of Americans typically attending a parade or visiting grave sites. There may be many reasons for this including the dying off of The Greatest Generation, the men who fought in World War II, and whose families bore the burden of their dedication. 1800 WWII vets are dying every day.
But a corollary may be the make-up of our current, all-volunteer force, which consists of less than 0.5 percent of the overall American population, compared with more than 12 percent who served during World War II.
Just 16 years ago a Gallup poll showed that two-thirds of Americans knew exactly what Memorial Day was about. Little over a decade later a 2011 survey found that 80 per cent of Americans confessed to having “little” or only “some” knowledge of the military holiday first known as Decoration Day. When we further make note that Americans have increasingly lost confidence in any of the three branches of the government, perhaps it is time to ask, is this the America for which those many, many thousands gave their lives to protect and preserve?
It all reminds me of a line from an old, popular early-TV western series, Have Gun, Will Travel. The star of the show was a West Point educated, ex-Union Army officer turned soldier-of-fortune who did business out of San Francisco in the 1870s. Paladin (no first name was ever given) carried a literary streak along with a well-oiled Colt revolver.
“You don’t understand what really makes this country,” said Paladin to a client whose adversary he has just dispatched. “What makes this country is not its great men standing alone trying to do the impossible. It’s men of all kinds, large and small, trying to do a job together. Not for their personal honor, but for the honor of their country.”
The nation was founded on the idea of the citizen politician, the radical idea that all men were created equal and therefore must share the responsibility of governing. The final sentence of the Declaration of Independence formed a solemn promise among the 56 signers to “mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” in service to that cause.
The polarization that continues to separate the country into distinct camps of grievance and blame has become as All-American as a bushel of corn. Yes, we are a country devoted to individual rights. But like our founders, we share common responsibilities that allow for those rights to flourish. The country today is torn by many who, in their zeal, fault others while failing to comprehend the broader commonality.
So on this Memorial Day weekend we should ask: how do we take the challenges that we face, and turn them into a future triumph that reflects the kind of solidarity on which this country was born, and for whose future it must rely? Maybe a renewed sense of service and a re-dedication to the education of our children might be a good place to begin so that they will at least be aware of what others sacrificed so they could walk blithely free, taking selfies, yet still feeling aggrieved.