We may disagree with one another about our vision for our country, but so did the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines we honor today.
When the booms started, the general’s entourage had already strapped into the back of a cargo plane to begin the long journey home. We were still on edge from the corkscrew landing on arrival to this small outpost north of Baghdad hours earlier. So, when our departing plane abruptly shut off, and when security forces rushed on and tossed us in the back of a pickup truck, and when we sped across the airfield with insurgents lobbing death in our direction, I admit that I thought the worst was imminent and inevitable. I looked at everyone stuffed in the bed of that truck with me and thought, “these are the men I may die with.”
Every Memorial Day, I recall that day and that feeling. Many men and women who have experienced some version of this harrowing epiphany did so in their final moments of life. We remember and honor their sacrifice on this the most sacred day of the American civic calendar.
I used to believe that remembering this sacrifice was the most powerful and respectful thing we could do. At Gettysburg in 1863, a resolute Abraham Lincoln commemorated those who had given their lives to reunify the country by declaring the world “can never forget what they did here.” And at Arlington Cemetery eight years later, Frederick Douglass remarked that “no loftier tribute can be paid” to those buried there than this simple epitaph: “They died for their country.” Remembering is how we give new life to those who have passed and how we validate the unfinished work for which they died. And in our need to find meaning and purpose in tragedy, we designate dying in the service of our country as an unassailable act of civic virtue. This helps us pluck a thing of beauty from the fields of loss.
In the back of that pickup truck on that airfield in Iraq, I looked at the men I would be remembered alongside. Perhaps on Memorial Day the following year—our names lifted from marble engravings and newspaper print—it would be said that we, as Lincoln extolled, “gave our last full measure of devotion.” It would be said that we were courageous Americans now owed a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid. It would be said that we died for our country.
An insight dawned on me then that I have only recently begun to truly understand: Our country is something we each believed in as well as a thing on which we disagreed. Equality and liberty and justice define my America, just as they do theirs, but my version of equality and liberty and justice—and how we can best achieve those ideals—is unquestionably different from theirs.