Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
Every year on the last weekend in May, hot dogs, barbecues, parades, yard sales and the escape to a shore or lake home usher in the summer. For the young, the ending of the scholastic year is on the horizon; for the adults, a much needed vacation from work. The extra “day off” on Monday, the chance to relax with family and friends and the warmer weather create a festive mood for celebrating the holiday weekend. However, Memorial Day has a much deeper meaning than the unofficial start of summer.
Memorial Day originated after the Civil War. North and South had drenched the soil of this country with the blood of more dead than in any other war in our nation’s history, before or since. At the war’s end, throughout the land, there was not a town or city without its dead and wounded. 620,000 fallen in battle, even as the government scrambled to establish, for the first time ever, national cemeteries in which to bury its citizens.
On May 5, 1868, Gen. John Logan, National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, designated the 30th of that year as a day to honor the graves of both the Union and Confederate soldiers who had died in the Civil War. Americans took to the idea. And, by the 20th century, the last Monday of May came to be designated as the day to remember all those who had died in military service.
When the First World War began, it was optimistically declared that this was “the war to end all wars.” Yet, since the end of that war, our country has been involved in 22 wars and conflicts around the world. Wars have become a fact of life. Modern warfare is extremely expensive. Wars cost. There is always a loss of people, each irreplaceable. There is always the squandering of resources that could be used in much better ways. The Iraq war is now estimated as costing well over $1 trillion (cf. Paul Krugman, “Why We fight Wars,” The New York Times, Aug. 17, 2014).
War is never glamorous. Bloodshed. Death. Destruction unleashed by the tools of modern warfare. Families broken. Soldiers maimed for life, physically and emotionally. War is always the failure for civilized men and women to live together. It is folly. Madness. So much fire and heat, so much pain and suffering. No wonder Union Army General Sherman once said, “War is hell.” It is a crime against humanity. And, yet, we still go to war. Why?
Reasonable people look for reasonable resolutions to disputes and controversies. Diplomacy is always the first and the best remedy to end the threat of war. But, words do not always work. The Church has always taught that there can be no true peace without justice. In the case of unjust aggression, when every other means of resolving the conflict have been exhausted, a nation can use proportionate military means to stop the injustice.
In his press conference on his Aug. 18, 2014 trip back from South Korea, Pope Francis said, “Where there is unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor.” When there is a need to protect innocent life, to insure conditions necessary for decent human existence and to secure basic human rights, and there is no other way to resolve the injustice, war becomes the response. War is horrible. But there are things worse than war. The loss of freedom. The loss of human dignity. The loss of our God-given rights.
This Memorial Day, we remember not the cost of war, but the price paid by our fallen soldiers for our freedom and the freedom of other peoples around the world. We remember lives never fully lived, but cut short. The sacrifice of oneself for the good of the other. Memorial Day is certainly more than flag waving and marching bands. It is profoundly about our commitment, as a great nation and as individuals, to defend the God-given rights of every individual, and thus participate in the very work of Christ who came that we “might have life and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10).).