By James M. Decker
On Memorial Day, I think of the war dead. Memorial Day arises out of the ancient custom of decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers. A variety of celebrations emerged in the United States, after the American Civil War, to decorate soldiers’ graves and honor the war dead. The details and dates varied, but each of these celebrations centered around remembering those who gave their lives in service to America. These myriad celebrations coalesced in the 20th century into the tradition we know as Memorial Day.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates our total war dead, from 1775 to the present, at just about 1.19 million. 651,000 of these deaths occurred in battle. Another 309,000 were killed in war theaters by other causes. About 230,000 other deaths occurred during our wars outside of the battle theater. No matter how these men and women died, each answered the call. Some deaths helped establish the very idea of America. Others preserved the idea of America in her darkest hours. Each one of these 1.19 million served and defended a place which, though imperfect, flawed, and constantly struggling with itself, was built to offer freedom and liberty like no other place on earth.
As I think of the war dead, I think that each of them were men and women of action. The freedom and liberty I mentioned? It does not exist spontaneously, created by some chemical reaction. It was created, preserved, and perpetuated by men and women of action. Many of these men and women gave their lives in full awareness of the flawed, imperfect nature of America, hoping that their sacrifice would lead to greater freedoms for more people in society. And they were right. America in 1775 was imperfect. America in 2019 is imperfect. We live on a flawed, imperfect earth, so that part will never change. But each generation should strive towards creating a better version of itself, so that even though still flawed and imperfect, it’s a little less so than it was before.
Those better versions of our place would not exist without the men and women of action. Some give their blood and lay down their lives. Others devote their lives, in whole or part, to service. Each of those people takes action that was, is, and will be necessary to leave America, and all its constituent communities, cities, and states a little better than they were before.
On April 10, 1899, Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech in Chicago called “The Strenuous Life.” Roosevelt extolled the virtues of men and women of action, rising to face the challenges of the world. He wrote that the coming 20th century would decide the fate of many nations. He was right. Former empires would shrink to a shell of their past self, or disappear entirely, in the coming years. Roosevelt opined that the 20th century would pass by all of those who “stand idly by…seek[ing] merely swollen, slothful ease and ignoble peace…shrink[ing] from the hard contests where men must win at hazard of their lives and at the risk of all they hold dear.”
Roosevelt predicted something better for America. Calling for its people to reject that “swollen, slothful ease and ignoble peace,” he challenged America to do the following:
“Above all, let us shrink from no strife, moral or physical, within or without the nation, provided we are certain that the strife is justified, for it is only through strife, through hard and dangerous endeavor, that we shall ultimately win the goal of true national greatness.”
As we celebrate Memorial Day 2019, I challenge you to think of the war dead. Think of those 1.19 million men and women of action. Each of them laid down their lives for America — for an imperfect idea that they hoped would become just a little bit better through their service and through each generation of service to come. May we remember their example and challenge ourselves to continue to improve the idea of America. May we challenge ourselves by the words issued by Roosevelt in 1899. Do we want swollen, slothful ease, or true greatness in our country, state, and local communities? And if we want true greatness, may we be the men and women of action, who stand tall through the strenuous life to make it so.
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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker. Listen to our podcast interview with James here.