‘We are all in this together’ means much more this Memorial Day

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From its inception in the aftermath of the Civil War as “Decoration Day,” in which the graves of the several hundred thousand dead were draped with flags and bedecked with flowers, Memorial Day has been by nature a public grieving process, marked by public ceremonies and solemn parades. The public message has been simple: gratitude that their sacrifice has enabled our survival as a united nation.  

This year, however, with nearly 100,000 Americans dead from the coronavirus over the past three months — a number equivalent to the combined combat fatalities in Korea and Vietnam over two decades — and with the COVID-19 infection still raging, the parade grounds will be silent, the ceremonies muted, the remembrances isolated.

What should take their place?   

I think the best way to honor our fallen soldiers is to emulate their devotion, by recommitting ourselves to sacrifice for our nation’s health.

This is asking a lot of contemporary American culture. Since the abolition of the military draft in 1973, there has been no requirement that Americans serve their country. Increasingly, over time, the percentage of the American population actively engaged in sacrificing for our freedoms has been shrinking; increasingly, perhaps because losses from our recent wars have touched relatively few families, Memorial Day has become less about acknowledging their ultimate sacrifice, and more about launching the summer season of parties and beach-going.  

We have been told repeatedly, in crisis after crisis, ranging from 9/11 to the economic crash of 2008, that the American public should contribute by continuing to work, to spend and to borrow as though nothing was wrong. As a consequence, the sacrifices we have come to honor on Memorial Day have become, for too many of us, the sacrifices borne by other families.   

The pandemic of 2020, with its tragic and mounting toll of American lives, has changed that trend. This is a crisis no one can ignore. We have been required to stay home, to work, teach and learn remotely, to accept shortages of certain consumer goods, to forego social gatherings of any size, and to deal with widespread economic devastation.  

How are we doing?

Three months into our nation’s scattershot response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with people dying the loneliest of deaths in the tens of thousands and with families left to mourn in isolation, the public mood is shifting from afraid to just plain frayed; many of us who are not yet patients have become impatient. 

Politicians are finding the pressure to relax public health restrictions is overwhelming, despite the very real risk of reigniting the outbreak, even as the pandemic’s front-line heroes — the critical care doctors, nurses, EMTs and police — have become infected themselves and died in unacceptable numbers.  

Republican Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota was brought nearly to tears as he urged residents to avoid the emerging and “senseless dividing line” over whether or not to wear masks.  Dozens of lawsuits have been filed around the country challenging various aspects of the restrictions imposed as a result of the pandemic, from remote classroom learning to restricting the size of religious gatherings to the closure of tattoo parlors, bars and beauty salons.

“We are all in this together,” Gov. Burgum urged. And we should be. But are we?  

Different generations of Americans have been asked to sacrifice in different ways. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were men of strongly held views and differing opinions on fundamental issues. But they issued perhaps the strongest affirmation that “we are all in this together” by explicitly pledging “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor” to the nation they declared. Our Civil War and the wars that have followed have required of our honored dead “the last full measure of devotion.”   

Our generation has been required to spend a few months on the couch. Why is that proving so difficult for us?        

The problem is cultural. We have simply grown unaccustomed to being asked to sacrifice for the public good. Our every appetite has been indulged, our every craving encouraged, for decades.  

Unlike nations such as Israel, where the requirement of universal service is understood and accepted, and breeds a spirit of sacrifice and civic engagement, nothing in our culture imparts to American citizens the imperative that we stand ready to sacrifice for the greater good. 

If we are to succeed in meeting the challenge to our health posed by the pandemic and the challenges to our form of government posed by hostile authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia, we need a cultural shift to reinforce the message that we are all in this together.  

Congress has responded by authorizing the infusion of vast amounts of capital into the economy to cushion the present blow; to date, however, the government is requiring very little from the public in return. I believe that an integral part of the comprehensive relief packages that Congress ultimately provides should be a universal service requirement that applies to all Americans. That service can take the form of military enlistment, but it also can involve a range of other voluntary service, such as working to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, providing emergency medical assistance, or assisting convicted persons with their reentry to society.  

This may seem a small step. Over time, however, it will reset expectations; the certain knowledge that some form of service is required will reinforce for Americans that we really are all in this together. It will inspire civic engagement and may even, over time, ease some of the polarization that is reinforced by the news and opinion silos that profit by magnifying our differences.

The Declaration signers pledged “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor” to the notion that we are all in this together. Every soldier sacrificed on battlefields from Yorktown to the Marne, Tarawa to Normandy, Afghanistan to Anzio, has signed in his or her blood that founding pledge of national purpose. Their lives. Their all too tragic fortunes. Their sacred honor.  

Their sacred honor is our sacred trust.

We should renew that mutual pledge in this pandemic year. Our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor are inextricably linked to those who came before and to those who shall follow. Recommitting ourselves to each other in the year of the COVID-19 pandemic is the best way to honor our heritage of sacrifice on this Memorial Day. 

John Farmer Jr. is director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney, counsel to the governor of New Jersey, New Jersey attorney general, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, dean of Rutgers Law School, and executive vice president and general counsel of Rutgers University.

Tags COVID-19 Declaration of Independence Memorial Day Sacrifice Universal service

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