For too many Americans, Memorial Day has become a day for barbecuing and beach trips – a day to shop for mattresses and appliances. But by being here today, each of you is declaring that above all else, Memorial Day is about remembering. It is about our national memory. Fortunately, throughout these United States, in bustling cities and in quiet towns, Americans are gathering this morning, as we do here, to remember and to honor the men and women who sacrificed their lives in service to our country so that all of us, and others throughout the world, might live in freedom.
In Washington and in state capitols and in town squares throughout our country, there are majestic monuments to great military and political leaders who in some way have bent the arc of history. But Memorial Day reminds us that the most important monuments are the humble headstones of grocers and mail carriers and nurses and teachers who were asked by their country to rise to the occasion – and they did. They were ordinary Americans who to a person would have preferred to stay home and to live their normal life with their families and friends, but instead they answered our country’s call and stepped up to serve a greater cause, and gave the last full measure of devotion.
Next week marks the 72nd anniversary of the D-Day invasion. If you’ve visited the landing beaches in Normandy, you can understand why volumes have been written about the vastness of that battle.
You gaze out at the endless sea and you imagine it covered with all kinds of ships and landing crafts that made up the largest amphibious assault in the history of the world.
You see the long beaches stretching into the distance, and you can envision them blackened with massive waves of men -- 150,000 in all -- desperately scrambling forward.
But when we think in scales like that, we can lose sight of the fact that even a world-changing event of this magnitude always comes down to individual people making the individual choice to overcome their terror and do the unnatural thing of putting their own lives in grave danger in service to their country. One person, charging out of the landing craft in the face of enemy fire. One person, searching for cover on the beach. One person, leading the way up the cliffs. One person – after another, after another, after another. So when you see the US cemetery, there or anywhere, with row after row after row of white crosses in perfect lines that seem to extend to the horizon, you realize that each of those markers is a monument at least as important to the history of our country as the grandest statue of a general or a president.
Because under those markers lie patriots who have gained their place in the long and strong chain of sacrifice that connects one generation of ordinary American heroes to the next. It is a chain that began when the farmers of Concord put aside their pitchforks and picked up their muskets and forced the King’s troops to retreat at the North Bridge. It is a chain that extended through Gettysburg, through Okinawa and Inchon and Khe Sahn. And it is a chain that continues to this day in the chaos and violence of Iraq and Afghanistan. And every American who formed a link in that chain, across all the wars and all the generations, played a part in building the nation we love.
Over the course of our history, the world has certainly changed and our armed forces have changed with it, but the valor, the dignity, and the courage of the men and women in uniform remain the same. Each of them, in each generation, has left a legacy of freedom, and they taught their children and their children’s children the value of sacrifice, and devotion, and service, and most of all, love of country.
All of those who have served, both the living and the dead, have become our teachers. Through their service they remind us of the extraordinary potential of ordinary Americans. They remind us of the principles for which our country stands, and they remind us of the courage and commitment necessary to maintain those principles. They remind us of both the blessings we enjoy, and the cost we must bear, as citizens of the last best hope of earth.
We owe them a debt which we can never fully repay, but which we must always strive to repay, by dedicating ourselves to the never-finished work of building a nation worthy of their sacrifice.
At a time when our great nation can seem so divided, the image of a casket draped in our flag should be one that removes all divisions among us. The person who lies within is no longer defined by political party, nor race, nor religion, nor gender, nor economic status. The person who lies within is an American patriot. And if that patriot shall not have died in vain, then we must find it in ourselves to set aside our own differences and resolve, truly, to be one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
May God bless all who have served, bless the souls of our departed, bless the families they left behind, and always bless the country for which they sacrificed.