Omaha Beach. Iwo Jima. Gettysburg. Arlington. These are hallowed names, and the hallowed grounds, we remember on Memorial Day: 131 military cemeteries in 39 states, besides the 24 overseas cemeteries where some 125,000 Americans are interred – in addition to the almost 100,000 inscribed in the Tablets of the Missing.
Those long rows of white crosses are not only reminders of the ultimate sacrifice our veterans made. They are the living seedbeds of our American future.
The United States was created to prove to the world that liberty is an imperishable blessing. It fought one great war, the Civil War, to secure that blessing for all Americans–a war in which more than 350,000 gave their lives.
In the last one hundred years another 600,000 Americans died in order to pass that liberty on to others, from Belleau Wood in World War One to the streets of Kabul. They died, and others served, so that Filipinos, Frenchmen, Koreans, Vietnamese, Afghans, and Iraqis could live free from tyranny, and experience the freedom we hold as a birthright.
And in exchange, as General Colin Powell once put it, “the only land we ever asked for was enough to bury our dead.”
Yet those plots of land are more than resting places for our war dead. Thomas Jefferson once spoke of the blood of patriots watering the tree of liberty.
The graves of our veterans are truly gardens of freedom where the spirit of those who sacrificed everything to give freedom to others, can rise up to inspire us to defend our own.
Theirs is a harvest which we gather every day.
Memorial Day reaches out beyond our veterans, living and dead, to embrace all Americans–and to remind them that freedom is never free, in peacetime as well as war.
Today, unfortunately, nothing is sacred. That includes the graves of our war dead and veterans. Every day brings new stories about resting places vandalized or decaying with neglect.
In one Boston cemetery 250 brass flag standards were stolen from soldiers’ graves to sell for scrap. A maintenance supervisor at a national cemetery outside Milwaukee was arrested for using the burial plots as his private dumping ground.
Meanwhile, the National Cemetery Association’s budget has been stuck at $250 million for more than a decade–that’s about half of what our government gave to Solyndra–even the numbers of World War Two and Korean War veterans passing on, has been soaring.
Those graves proclaim that the gift of liberty can never be taken for granted. What does it say about freedom’s future, if those who gave everything for it, lie forgotten?
Let’s get to work this Memorial Day. It’s time to tend our garden.
Historian Arthur Herman is author "The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization" (Random House 2013).