America has undergone a lot of maturing between the Vietnam War and the conflicts of the 21st century. I know, I wore a uniform during both periods.
On Memorial Day, let’s not regress in that maturity.
When I was still a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, I watched our instructors (all multitour Vietnam veterans) deal with the end of the war.
In that cathartic period, these brave warriors related the stories of coming home, not to the cheering parades held for their predecessors, but to horrible vilification. This included name-calling and spitting on service members in airports.
All of it was infantile blaming of the young men and women who fought because of the policy decisions of the elected government that sent them.
It was a shameful response, one that showed an unfortunate dark side.
After 9/11, nearly everyone wanted action, but there was a great deal of debate as to what it should be. The Bush administration was set in its intent, but others disagreed. When the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq ground on, the disagreement grew stronger.
As a member of the Army, I wondered how American citizens in the street would respond to our troops as they rotated back and forth to the combat zones.
There were numerous wonderful displays of support: White-haired ladies meeting troops in Bangor, Maine’s airport at 2:30 a.m. with hugs, candy, and cheers. Teams of “welcome home” groups in Texas airports 24/7.
This all blessed our young people. More importantly, I watched time after time in other airports as Americans stopped and thanked small groups or individuals walking in uniforms still dusty from the desert or the mountains.
Some clearly disagreed strongly with the decisions Washington had made. But they were able to separate that disagreement to say a quiet thank you to the ones who were tasked with executing those decisions.
This was an enormous step forward, and showed a great deal of national maturity.
We are going to celebrate Memorial Day on May 27 this year. To many, it is a joyous time to end winter and begin the fun of late spring and summer. Few will remember the real reason for what is meant to be a very solemn day.
In the fall, on Veterans Day, we stop to thank those who have fought for, and are fighting for, America. That day thanks those still living, and acknowledges their sacrifice.
Memorial Day is different. This day remembers those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country.
We do thank the vets who attend the ceremonies across the land, who march in parades and lay wreaths at thousands of small town memorials. We do it because they are there, standing with us.
In truth, though, we are not honoring them. We are honoring those who are not there, who did not come home. Veterans know this, and you will notice even more humility in their quiet “thank you” answers to the kind words of their fellow citizens.
Many people today could not tell you what we are celebrating. That is sad, and shows not the maturity discussed above, but an intellectual and emotional atrophy. A nation that does not honor its dead is a nation in trouble.
This is not an indictment of all Americans; many will know exactly what they are doing on Monday, May 27. They will pause, perhaps pray, and remember those who gave all for America.
When we see others who are not doing that, I hope that we can gently remind them.
When children ask, “Why is today a holiday?”, parents can explain. They can point to the names on those small town monuments, and say: “We are remembering them. They died for our freedom.”
Have a blessed Memorial Day. But take a few moments to remember that this is not about sales, or barbecues, or days off.
This is a day to remember sacrifice and authentic heroism.
Steven P. Bucci, who served America for three decades as an Army Special Forces officer and top Pentagon official, is a visiting research fellow at The Heritage Foundation. Read his research.