Their Last Full Measure of Devotion

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Memorial Day (formerly observed in various places as “Decoration Day”) is a federal holiday in the United States that finds its origin in the practice of decorating the graves of fallen soldiers in the Spring. Memorial Day is a day for honoring the dead, not for celebrating those who formerly served or do so currently. They are remembered on separate holidays known as Armed Forces Day and Veterans Day.

One of the early instances of memorializing the dead in the United States occurred on November 19, 1863 near the battlefield cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and was attended by then-President Abraham Lincoln. The President delivered a short address that has come to embody the American vision. We know it as the Gettysburg Address, and it is fitting to consider on this Memorial Day as it was in fact a Memorial Day address.

President Lincoln, one of the founders of the Republican Party, was leading the nation through a time of extreme crisis. At Gettysburg the tide turned, though he had no way to know that yet. The conflict was started by a philosophy that sought to save the liberties enshrined in the Constitution by destroying the nation the Constitution created. It should not be lost on us that this same philosophy is actively working to convene a Convention of States, the effect of which would be to destroy the nation, or that a cavalier disregard for Constitutional norms in the Executive and Congress accomplishes a similar effect. Lincoln noted the irony in his Second Inaugural Address, “Both sides deprecated war; but one side would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.”

On this Memorial Day there is a profound disagreement over the very nature of our country. When we pause to honor those who died defending it, we have to wonder what we think they gave their last full measure of devotion for. Did they die for the flag, or did they die to defend what the flag represents? Is this a nation of fearful humanity seeking safety through national “purity” and the exclusion of the outside world? Or is it a nation of bold, risk-taking humanity that inspires people to the struggle for freedom the world over? One need only walk through one of the too-many national cemeteries to gain clarity. The markers of those who died defending this country come from every nation, every ethnicity, every culture in the world.

When I was a school boy I was inspired by the rhetoric of courageous patriots who struggled against seemingly insurmountable odds to secure liberty for themselves and for “all men [people] …, created equal.” When I was in school we memorized and learned to recite the Preamble to the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address. It was not an onerous task. I felt enriched to be an heir to such a noble legacy. What are we teaching our kids today about that legacy?

Today we have a President who brags about the size of his penis and grabbing women by the genitals and has introduced the term “shithole” into the Presidential lexicon. As the President, his stooges in Congress and the right-wing media sink lower and lower in both action and discourse, their opponents follow suit. American politics has always been vicious even though our words elevated to the sublime. Today American rhetoric swirls around and around as gravity sucks it down the toilet, and we celebrate it. Where today are those leaders who once inspired this nation to greatness?

Perhaps we lean too heavily on others. Perhaps on this Memorial Day, as we remember those who died for this country, we also ought to honor them by heeding the call of the Republican President who devoted his life to equality and national unity:

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Amen. May it be so.

Gettysburg Address from Keith Cox on Vimeo.