Asking, on Memorial Day, What Did Our Fallen Soldiers Die For?

This piece ran in the newspapers in mid-June, 2024.


I observed this Memorial Day by thinking about those members of the Greatest Generation who fought and won World War II, especially those who gave their lives to defeat the fascist forces of Nazi Germany and the cruel conquerors from Japan.

Millions of Americans in the military endured so much. In order to defeat those enemies, hundreds of thousands forfeited the chance to live out their full lives.

How are we to understand what those Americans died for?

It’s more than just being for one’s country in the same way we might want “our side” to win when we identify with the NFL team that resides in our region.

More admirable is the idea of protecting one’s land and people from enemies. That has been part of human societies since the beginnings of civilization.
But when one looks at the history of our America, there’s always been something more, something special – even sacred – in our national understanding of what our nation stands for and fights for: namely, America’s special quality as a democratic society, the “land of the free,” “sweet land of liberty.”

That was especially true about World War II. The Allied leaders (FDR and Churchill) defined the meaning of that war in such terms — as they led the fight against enemy regimes that operated in complete violation of those basic values that inspired our founders to create the American Republic.

And that same moral spirit was deeply embedded in the dozens of movies made in America during World War II. Our boys were fighting for decency, and for the rights of people to form the government of their choice.

When Lincoln spoke of what those soldiers died for at Gettysburg — when he resolved that the “honored dead…shall not have died in vain” — he described the purpose as being that “the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” They died, in other words, for American Democracy.

So when I think of the sacrifice of the people we honor on Memorial Day, I think of them as having died to protect those sacred American values. They died for the nation the world has long honored for our breakthrough to Democracy; for the nation the French celebrated by giving us that fabulous gift, the Statue of Liberty. Died to save the world from Fascism.

Which makes it disturbing to think of all those millions of Americans among us today who think they’re honoring our fallen dead, yet are planning to vote for something deeply akin to that fascistic form of government those Americans sacrificed their lives to defeat.

Ben Franklin famously said, when asked what our founders had given Americans, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Keeping it turns out not to be as automatic as I used to think. Apparently, if things go somehow wrong, you can lose it.

A friend of mine recently said, “I used to think, ‘We’re better than that.’” “That” being the possibility – visible in this moment — that the American people might actually choose to move toward an authoritarian, fascistic, strong man, dictatorial form of government.

He and I agreed that we used to be better than that. But now, maybe we’re not.

The polls suggest there’s a real chance that the American electorate will choose to give the powers of the Presidency to a leader who has declared openly his intention to sweep away the system of American government – of the Rule of Law, of checks and balances – so the Leader can wield power arbitrarily.

We know which side FDR and Churchill would support in the war Putin’s Russia inflicted on democratic Ukraine.
But millions of Americans – even while thinking patriotic thoughts on Memorial Day – are planning to vote for a leader who clearly sides with the fascistic dictator in Russia– whose tyranny over his people and aggression against neighbors resemble those of the Nazis, and whose war crimes are like those of the Japanese aggressors in Asia.

Something seems amiss when people who honor those who died to keep the government by and for the people from perishing from the earth are planning to vote for a leader who claims to be above the law.

We can now see that “defending America” entails not only battles against external enemies. Now it’s a domestic political “battle” that’s fought at the ballot box, where victory requires enlisting the support of the American people.

We can infer that our founders foresaw that both kinds of battles needed to be fought from how they framed the oath that they required all those who serve in the people’s government to take: to protect the Constitution “against enemies foreign and domestic.” Our founders knew that the Constitution was the heart and essence of the nation they bequeathed to us.

So fighting to defend the heart and soul America in our times requires defeating – at the ballot box – both the leader, and the Party that does his bidding, who no longer even hides his intention to dismantle America’s constitutional order.

It dishonors our fallen dead, who died not for a flag but for America’s core values, to give support for a “domestic enemy” of the sacred spirit of American democracy, for which so many fought and died.

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