If Memorial Day is about anything, it’s about sacrifice. Originally conceived as a day on which to remember Americans who died in battle, the holiday memorializes those who risked every individual hope and joy for the sake of the greater good.
But in modern American society this sacrificial impulse has gone the way of the typewriter. If we look for the roots of this new selfishness — which often masquerades under the misapplied label “freedom” — we might find ourselves at the moment in 1973 when the draft was abolished. Isn’t the all-volunteer military another masquerade, a way of shifting a burden from the haves to the have-nots? We’ve come to accept this as fair, when, in fact, it’s part and parcel of a larger inequity.
It is true, of course, that, in every branch of the service, one can find well-educated and well-off young people who volunteered for military duty. Some come from families with a long proud history of military service, and some just feel a patriotic urge to serve their country in uniform. They know they may be called upon to risk life or limb, but they are moved by a sense of duty, an understanding of the true meaning of freedom and the role America has played in defending it, and a conscience that recognizes the value, not just of the individual pursuit of happiness but of common responsibility.
But those people are the shining exceptions. How many Marine recruiting billboards do you see in the fancy suburbs? Given a choice between enlisting in the service or embarking on a path that includes college, an advanced degree, and a safe, rich life of dinner parties and summer houses, most young men and women of the investment class — some of our best and brightest — choose the latter. And who can fault them? The fault lies not with them but with a society that has lost its sense of fairness.
You can see the same lopsided morality at work in the arguments over health care and taxes. You have a small number of millionaires who understand their communal responsibility and want the laws changed to make their tax burden fairer. And then you have a chorus of loud voices shouting about freedom and success and the misbegotten notion that more money in their investment accounts will actually benefit the masses. We have the young and healthy who want no part of a national health care system that, as it does in so many other advanced countries, recognizes and supports the idea of collective obligation. Fine, if some other family sends their kids to war. Fine, if the gap between rich and poor widens, as long as I’m on the right side of it. Fine, if some guy we don’t know loses his house because of the expenses of cancer treatment. That’s freedom.
Ironically enough, many of the same people who extol the excellence of the American military (often in the most sentimental terms) also contend that the government cannot do anything well and should be shrunk down to nothing and kept out of our lives. They put a hand on their chest and gaze up at the flag during the national anthem, as if it is a red, white, and blue excuse for selfishness.
During World War II, my mother set aside a promising physical therapy career to enlist in the Army and work with amputees at Walter Reed, men who’d lost their youth in the Pacific Theater. It’s important for us to spend a day recognizing sacrifices like that — hers, the men who lost arms and legs, and the men and women who’ve given their lives or good health in more recent wars.
And it’s fine that young people don’t have to put on a uniform if they don’t want to. But they should have to do something, some form of brief national service that benefits someone other than themselves. A just, wise, decent society asks sacrifice of everyone, not just the poor and brave. On Memorial Day, amid the parades and wreath-laying, the speeches and cemetery visits, we might think about sacrifice, and how easy it is to ask it of everyone but ourselves.
Roland Merullo’s essay, “What a Father Leaves,” honoring his father, will be released as an e-book and audio book in June.