A Memorial Day Reflection

A Reflection on Memorial Day from Jon Margolick

American flag

Jon Margolick, Executive Vice President, Truman National Security Project

In one of my favorite books, there’s a song about angels. It’s not at all a serious song, and many of the characters are far from serious people, but there isn’t a dry eye or a silent throat in the room when it’s sung. They learned it together, on campaign, in days when their country needed them. They only ever sing it together. Onlookers can be forgiven for thinking they sing it for each other. Really, as they stand and grow solemn, they’re singing in recollection of those who sang it with them, once, and no longer can.

Memorial Day is a day for such songs. It came to us after the Civil War, yet as early as 1884 there were those who needed reminding why we have it. Oliver Wendell Holmes may have put it best, speaking about as long after the opening shots of the Civil War as we are, now, from the first convoys of our post-9/11 conflicts. I’ll paraphrase only slightly here:

Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us. But, above all, we have learned that whether one accepts from Fortune her spade, and will look downward and dig, or from Aspiration her axe and cord, and will scale the ice, the one and only success which it is ours to command is to bring to our work a mighty heart.

Such hearts — ah me, how many! — were stilled twenty years ago; and to us who remain behind is left this day of memories. Every year — in the full tide of spring, at the height of the symphony of flowers and love and life — there comes a pause, and through the silence we hear the lonely pipe of death. . . . Year after year the comrades of the dead follow, with public honor, procession and commemorative flags and funeral march — honor and grief from us who stand almost alone, and have seen the best and noblest of our generation pass away.

Most who served, even in recent years, knew someone who didn’t come home. We remember the beer they liked, or what they wore when they went to the gym, or the joke that only they told. We know those who looked at death and barely came clear, the only ones out of a downed helicopter or an upended Humvee. We knew their families. We knew their hearts.

It isn’t the special province of those who served in uniform. The walls at Langley bear the marks of stars for those who gave their lives. At the State Department, memorial walls in the C Street lobby list names of fallen officers. As aid workers, as Peace Corps volunteers, as interpreters for our forces abroad, and under a hundred other crests, we are surrounded by those who took from Fortune her spade, or from Aspiration her axe and cord, and came with a will to the work demanded by our time. On Memorial Day, we are surrounded, too, by those who answered the call and did not come back — and by those who did and, in tragedy, laid down their axe and cord on peaceful soil.

If restaurants are open this weekend and a lone beer sits unattended on the counter, you’ll know it’s for someone who isn’t coming. A coin on a gravestone. A bracelet, heavier today. Pull-ups in a park until the sweat sings. Take a quiet moment, then. Take some time to call your friends, who may be thinking of someone themselves, someone who can’t sing with them anymore. This is a weekend to remember.

- Jon Margolick

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