Memorial Day demands that we pause and consider

Flags are placed in front of more than 280,000 headstones of U.S. military personnel buried at Arlington National Cemetery, in preparation for Memorial Day, in Arlington, Va., on Thursday, May 26, 2022.
Anna Rose Layden
Flags are placed in front of more than 280,000 headstones of U.S. military personnel buried at Arlington National Cemetery, in preparation for Memorial Day, in Arlington, Va., on Thursday, May 26, 2022.

Like most things that happen annually, it’s easy to take Memorial Day for granted. It was first celebrated in 1868, designed as a holiday to mend rifts between the North and South in the wake of the Civil War. Flowers were placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery in an act of civic healing.

How nice it would be if we could heal the rifts between and among Americans today with a simple gesture of grace — pausing to remember the fallen. 

We have gotten used to beer, parades and outdoor picnics on this holiday. This year, as close to 40 million Americans are expected to hit the roads, the price of gas will be on everyone’s mind.

But as we travel and celebrate, we must remember that Monday’s holiday represents a sacred obligation to honor those who gave their lives in service to our country. We honor the fallen at a time when our country has fallen in stature and grace. Political tensions have roiled our nation of heroes. We have clashing positions on politics, abortion, gun safety, the economy and much more. These days, we seem to disagree more than we agree.

Yet it is important to underscore on Memorial Day that Americans are still fighting for freedom around the world — something we all want.

When it comes to our military, there should be no debate. The United States maintains the largest active troop presence abroad of any country in the world. The United States is likely to keep 100,000 troops in Europe to support Ukraine and protect its neighbors from the Russian onslaught.

Even in peaceful times, America maintains a strong military presence in Europe. Some fear we may have to permanently station troops in the Baltics if those nations come under attack.

In Asia, our bases and troops safeguard our strategic interests in the region, protecting freedom of the sea and providing a deterrent against China. We have 11 carrier groups rotating in and out of the Indo-Pacific projecting American power.

In Africa, American troops provide counterterrorism functions, including an on-the-ground presence in violent and dangerous places such as Somalia.

In the Middle East, an estimated 50,000 U.S. troops guard our interests in 21 countries, including Iraq. Without an American presence in Afghanistan right now, we are seeing how unstable the region is becoming.

Although our military presence in Latin America is more limited than in other regions, our forces interdict drugs and weaken the authority of armed groups and non-state actors seeking to create violence.

Memorial Day is about life and death, both home and overseas.

Last Memorial Day, Americans were in the thick of a deadly pandemic that has taken 1 million lives and required enormous sacrifice from medical heroes — nurses and doctors on the front lines of the crisis.

This Memorial Day we think about the U.S. officials and border police who ran into a Texas elementary school when a gunman was barricaded in a classroom on a deadly rampage killing 19 children and two teachers.

We think about security guard Aaron Salter, who was killed in Buffalo as he tried to engage a gunman in a supermarket where 10 people were killed in another senseless act of hatred and violence.

Memorial Day is supposed to be about those who die in battle. Today our domestic streets and schools are battlegrounds. Many of those who died this year in gun battles wore police uniforms instead of Army fatigues. They responded to assault rifles akin to what you would find in Afghanistan or Ukraine. They died to protect others.

We are blessed to live in a free and democratic country despite its foibles and failures. It is because of the men and women in the armed forces that we have rights and privileges. 

We ought to pause this Memorial Day to think about how we safeguard democracy and pay homage to those who died in the name of freedom. How tragic it would be to have lost so many men and women in World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and other distant corners of the globe only to lose people in our own battle with ourselves.

Tara D. Sonenshine is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice in Public Diplomacy at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Tags Afghanistan War Iraq War Korean War Memorial Day Memorial Day weekend US military support Vietnam war World War I World War II

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