That They Shall Not Have Died in Vain

Dear Will:

It’s Memorial Day weekend, but it hasn’t felt much like a holiday around here.  We recently installed some cabinets in our garage, which meant that first I had to spend several evenings culling through our “stuff” and piling everything that was worth keeping into a heap in the middle of the garage.  It then took me two full days to assign the various heap units to their new homes.  The garage looks great (it won’t last, I know; but for a few days we’re indulging the fantasy).  Still, I can’t wait to get back to the office so that I can relax.

As I pulled out my flag to commemorate the holiday, I found myself thinking about patriots.  The great patriots of the world have demonstrated a clear sense that the collective is more important than the individual.  They understood that in the fight to establish or preserve freedom for a nation, the focus cannot be on “me” or “mine,” but rather has to be on “us” and “ours.” Consider the words of Moroni, the great Book of Mormon patriot, which he hastily scrawled but carefully chose as he placed them on the Title of Liberty.  “In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children,” it read (Alma 46:12).  That banner became a rallying point for a nation, its message a rallying cry for a people.  It reminded the Nephites that they had something worth fighting for.

Moroni’s selfless leadership also reflected an understanding that in order to achieve great things it would be necessary to give up, or at least place at risk, some good things.  That’s why often, when we speak of glorious patriots, we also speak of tragic death.  Because, as Emerson said, they “[dared] to die, and leave their children free.” A couple of years ago, my wife Dana and I enjoyed one of the most moving Sabbaths of our lives.  After attending church in downtown Washington D.C., we set out for an afternoon of quiet reflection at the various memorials in and around the capital, each one paying homage to patriots, both famous and obscure.  We watched visitors take rubbings from that great wall of the Vietnam Memorial.  We were moved by the drama of the Korean War Memorial.  But nothing was so moving as our trek through Arlington National Cemetery, with its rows upon rows of nondescript gravestones, each paying tribute to a life given up for country.  We witnessed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and watched reverently as the honor guard marched 21 steps up, 21 steps back, 21 steps up, 21 steps back—each step honoring the many unnamed men and women who have died defending our country.

Patriots such as these have knowingly faced the ironic truth that in order to preserve our lives and families, we may have to temporarily or permanently forsake them.  It’s a truth that Jesus himself taught.  “For whosoever shall save his life shall lose it,” He said, “and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it”  (Matthew 16:25).  Jesus also said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).  It’s what Abraham Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.”  It is the ultimate sacrifice, an act of selflessness that cannot be matched: sacrifice made often in the face of staggering odds; selflessness that defies reason.

What of us then?  Perhaps as we reflect on the great lives and deaths of patriots, we can once again find inspiration in the words of Lincoln, pronounced just months after the bloody battle at Gettysburg: “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say. . . , but it can never forget what they did. . . .  It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated . . . to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we . . . highly resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain. . . .”

PW

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