Honor those who sacrificed their all — and our living veterans

Honor those who sacrificed their all — and our living veterans
© Getty Images

Across the nation, the Memorial Day weekend is considered the unofficial beginning of summer, the season of graduations and proms, and a welcome three-day holiday to spend with family and friends. Many Americans gather for events and activities, enjoying freedom and the privileges of a free society so frequently taken for granted.

With today’s many distractions it seems fair and fitting to ask: how many of us will devote proper time and attention to honoring the nation’s fallen? Every American should hope that none of us fails to reflect upon those who sacrificed their all, and to honor our living veterans in our own personal way.  

Several years ago, on the eve of the Fourth of July, I came across a commentary by David Harmer, chief executive of Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, that offered perfect clarity on the meaning of our annual national tribute. He wrote:

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“Few of us have earned the freedom we enjoy; we’ve received them by bequest as gifts of grace. The freedoms we celebrate on Independence Day were made possible by the sacrifices we commemorate on Memorial Day. To the valiant few, we owe an incalculable debt.”

That’s got it just right. The meaning of these truths hit with full force during my first Memorial Day in uniform in 1968, as a company commander during battle to reinforce the Marine Combat Base at Khe Sahn, in Vietnam. In that company of Marines, as in so many others like it, we would find the young heroes who would pay the last full measure of devotion. No Memorial Day since has lapsed without my thinking deeply about the infinite price they paid, and the eternal debt of honor they are owed.

Many years later, during my tenure as NATO commander, I had the privilege of visiting many of the American military cemeteries that dot Europe, as they do in Asia and other areas around the world, and across the United States. Laid to rest in these hallowed grounds are generations of young Americans, hailing from every corner of the country, of every race, creed and color, who gave of themselves so that the American idea might live — so that liberty might survive, and so that freedom could ring not just at home but for all of mankind; not just in their own time but today, and for our future.  

I never failed to notice the genuine affection and thankfulness felt still today by allies and friends abroad whose freedom was paid for by the blood and lives of American servicemembers. They, too, honor the spirit of our Memorial Day.

More recently, I was speaking with a close German friend of my age and asked him about his childhood during World War II. He told me that, frequently, German adults of that period would ask him what he wanted to be when he grew up. His answer always was that he wanted to be an American.   

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On this day in particular, it’s important that the magnitude and meaning of American sacrifice be commemorated and informed by a sober understanding of what the world would be like today if not for the nation’s roll call of honor, and what tomorrow could look like without Americans like them today.  

Imagine the darkness on earth:

  • If the American experiment in freedom and self-government had not been undertaken — a leap of faith that took Minutemen and citizen-soldiers to win;

  • If the experiment would have succumbed to the evils of slavery, inequality and national division — which took the lives of legions of our countrymen in a Civil War to forfend;

  • If martial conquest and tyranny had prevailed in the two world wars of the past century;
     
  • If communism had triumphed in the long twilight struggle of the Cold War, or;
     
  • If violent Islamic extremism were given quarter to metastasize and spread.

Just imagine the poverty, misery and hopelessness of man’s lot. I’m not sure if it’s even possible to conceive.  

Each of these defining moments in America’s story — indeed, humanity’s story — required the courage of our country’s youngest, best and brightest. That is why Memorial Day is a time not just of commemoration but also of profound and eternal gratitude, and a time for personal reflection on our blessings.

But, it seems to me that Memorial Day demands still more. I believe it’s also a time for us to look forward and to refresh our fidelity to the ideals that have always inspired America’s patriots — and to the virtues that must strengthen us to meet the many challenges ahead; challenges that are as difficult and consequential as those America has overcome.  

It was no surprise that, at the nation’s inception, the idea of equality among men, the primacy of God-given rights, and the virtue of self-government were rather outrageous — indeed, dangerous — concepts. In many quarters of the world, they still are. Down through the generations, the malevolent forces of human nature were bound to resist liberty and self-evident truths. They still do. The cause of freedom and fundamental human rights will always need American leadership and commitment, and the support of all like-minded nations as well.

So, in this weekend’s revelry and reverie, let’s not forget to honor the American servicemembers standing post in harm’s way around the world, ready and willing this very day to make the ultimate sacrifice for our ideals. 

Despite our internal controversies, divisions and imperfections — rather, quite because of them — may we find cohesion in their service and in the sacrifice of America’s fallen. May they inspire us to build on the values that unify all Americans, to work together respectfully on our national project, and to fulfill the everlasting hope of peace, prosperity and the triumph of good. This is what would honor them most.  

The motto of the United States Marine Corps, in which I served, is Semper Fidelis — “Always Faithful.” My Memorial Day wish is for the country to remain faithful to those who sacrificed everything for freedom, and to the values and principles for which they laid down their lives; moreover, that we keep and nurture that faith, passing it on to future generations of Americans, not just on Memorial Day but every day and always.

Gen. James L. Jones is chairman of the Atlantic Council and former national security adviser to President Barack Obama. He retired from the Marine Corps in 2007 after 40 years, during which he served as commander of the U.S. European Command, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, and Marine Corps commandant.