On Memorial Day we commemorate those who have died in military service to our nation. It is an opportunity not only to pay our respects to those who made the ultimate sacrifice to our country but also to reflect on how they helped defend our country and our way of life. It is likewise a time to thank all of those who stand ready today to sacrifice their lives for us and the families and communities that support them.
Equally important, as we reflect upon the magnitude of the sacrifice of these patriots, Memorial Day is a time to reflect upon what each of us will do with the opportunities and freedom we have been given as a result of these sacrifices. In essence, it offers each of us a chance to renew our commitment to build a nation of which these fallen patriots would be proud.
The ‘Greatest Generation’
Even though Memorial Day was first celebrated after the Civil War, my own memory of this critically important day was shaped, from a young age, by the stories of World War II told by my father and his brothers, all of whom fought in that great conflict. Tom Brokaw rightly noted in his book “The Greatest Generation,” that these men and women “came of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War and went on to build modern America.”
From my perspective, it was their massive sacrifice and that of their families and communities, as well as that of our allies, which is the single greatest contribution to the world in which we live today. In many ways, that sacrifice is why we enjoy the relative economic prosperity and amazing quality of life that this nation has to offer.
As I talked with members of this heroic generation, I heard stories of men and women in their early 20s who willingly went to war — risking life and limb — to save our way of life. They dropped in behind enemy lines in foreign lands and often fought for the freedom of people they did not know. It is difficult for us today, even in the challenges of the current environment, to imagine the sheer magnitude of the problems this past generation collectively faced. Yet face those they did, and they were victorious.
The patriots who had served our nation overseas then returned to civilian life with a commitment to go beyond the average, to do the impossible, and to see that type of success as normal. Indeed, it was that very spirit which came out of World War II that really drove our economy to new heights and made America a beacon of hope to the world in the decades that followed.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur captured this sentiment in his famous speech at West Point in May 1962, saying, “Duty, Honor, Country: Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.”
Gen. MacArthur’s words rang true for many of us who served in the modern, post-World War II, post-Vietnam military. They were the values and belief system that shaped my generation and set us on a multi-decades path to redefine our military across service lines and that allowed us to steel ourselves for the ongoing fight in the Global War on Terrorism.
When I was asked why I stayed in the military for so long, the words often came easily: It was to work with people who had these strong values, who sought to protect our nation, and who were willing to sacrifice their time, effort and, potentially, their lives to sustain our way of life.
In many ways, the front-line responders fighting today’s pandemic in cities, counties and states across the U.S. — and, indeed, across the globe — share these same beliefs and values.
The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have now gone on for nearly two decades. Today’s military members thus have been in combat far longer than those who served in World War II. Many have served for a half-decade — or longer — in active combat zones. More than 7,000 servicemen and women — and their families — have given the ultimate sacrifice in these wars.
What it means, and what we ought do
The key question today for us as a nation is how we commemorate the sacrifice of these generations of patriots. Without question, we should take this day to plant a flag, decorate a grave, say a prayer and directly convey our thanks to those who served — and to their families who likewise bear the burdens of a life of service — in order to let them know that their sacrifice is not forgotten.
But there is more that we can and should do.
We must go beyond the mere trappings of thank yous and memorials. We must make those patriots proud by using the opportunity that they have given us through their sacrifice, to build a better, more just America for the generations to come.
When the “Greatest Generation” came back from World War II, they built America into what it is today. We must do the same in this generation. We must do so now, as we begin to come out of this immediate moment of darkness. We must put aside our differences — political, economic and social — and step up to build the America our future generations need and deserve.
I know that this is what my father and his brothers would have wanted. It is the reason I served. It is the reason that my wife and I visited with the families of every soldier who served under my command and paid the ultimate sacrifice. I want each one of those men and women to be able to look down from above and know that they gave the ultimate sacrifice for something that mattered.
Let’s make them proud.
Gen. (Ret.) Keith B. Alexander served in the United States Army for 40 years.