In the summer of 2004, as a young naval lieutenant and aide-de-camp to a three-star general, I went to Iraq just as a wave of insurgent violence had begun to recede. The general wanted to talk to diplomatic and military leaders, special forces, and intelligence personnel to get a firsthand account of how our agency’s support had fared in the heat of battle. I remember listening in awe to Marines recounting their armed procession into Fallujah. I remember being stunned by the lush green of the Iraqi landscape as we coptered around in a Black Hawk convoy. And I remember the attack.
Staggered explosions seemed to come from nowhere and from every direction all at once, each followed by another, and another. I knew each successive cluster of blasts was closer than the one before—not from how they sounded, but from how their percussive effects felt different on the bone.
When the booms started, the general’s entourage had already strapped into the back of a cargo plane to begin the long journey home. We were still on edge from the corkscrew landing on arrival to this small outpost north of Baghdad hours earlier. So, when our departing plane abruptly shut off, and when security forces rushed on and tossed us in the back of a pickup truck, and when we sped across the airfield with insurgents lobbing death in our direction, I admit that I thought the worst was imminent and inevitable. I looked at everyone stuffed in the bed of that truck with me and thought, “these are the men I may die with.”
Every Memorial Day, I recall that day and that feeling. Many men and women who have experienced some version of this harrowing epiphany did so in their final moments of life. We remember and honor their sacrifice on this the most sacred day of the American civic calendar.
I used to believe that remembering this sacrifice was the most powerful and respectful thing we could do. At Gettysburg in 1863, a resolute Abraham Lincoln commemorated those who had given their lives to reunify the country by declaring the world “can never forget what they did here.” And at Arlington Cemetery eight years later, Frederick Douglass remarked that “no loftier tribute can be paid” to those buried there than this simple epitaph: “They died for their country.” Remembering is how we give new life to those who have passed and how we validate the unfinished work for which they died. And in our need to find meaning and purpose in tragedy, we designate dying in the service of our country as an unassailable act of civic virtue. This helps us pluck a thing of beauty from the fields of loss.
In the back of that pickup truck on that airfield in Iraq, I looked at the men I would be remembered alongside. Perhaps on Memorial Day the following year—our names lifted from marble engravings and newspaper print—it would be said that we, as Lincoln extolled, “gave our last full measure of devotion.” It would be said that we were courageous Americans now owed a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid. It would be said that we died for our country.
An insight dawned on me then that I have only recently begun to truly understand: Our country is something we each believed in as well as a thing on which we disagreed. Equality and liberty and justice define my America, just as they do theirs, but my version of equality and liberty and justice—and how we can best achieve those ideals—is unquestionably different from theirs.
How could the general, a working-class white kid from Pittsburgh, know anything of my particular America, which traces to black sharecropping grandparents hounded at every turn by a volatile Jim Crow? What did I—with my Huxtable-style middle class Southern upbringing lathered with the Sunday theatrics of the black Baptist church—know of his Irish American community of Catholic steelworkers, VFW halls, and boys in crew cuts and pompadours? And yet here we both were, volunteers in the armed forces in a faraway land, shoulder to shoulder, prepared to die—him for his country, me for mine, and us for ours.
The men and women we honor on Memorial Day fought for different reasons, gave their lives for different things. This assembly of souls did not rush into battle with a copy of the Constitution snug in every breast pocket, all of them compelled to fight by an identical love for a single, shared understanding of democracy and liberty. Some fought because they wanted to protect their homes from plunder. Some fought because they were conscripted and had little choice in the matter. Some fought because that is what was expected of them, or because it provided means for their families. And some fought as an explicit claim on their place in America—a place that had been denied them by the very nation whose uniform they wore with pride.
These realities do not detract from their ultimate acts of altruism. There is no need to mythologize their service or sacrifice. Remembrance does not require it, and honor refuses it. More importantly, such mythmaking obscures the intrinsically American thing that gives Memorial Day its meaning.
No matter the rationale for donning the cloth of the nation and engaging in the terrible trial, those who serve soon learn that their ability to behold the America they are fighting to preserve—or to create—is dependent on the man or woman beside them in foxholes, cockpits, sandy beach charges, and the bellies of ships. The black soldier knows any shot at emancipation or voting rights or freedom from oppression requires the bravery of the white airman who may be fighting to bring economic opportunity back to her rural hometown, the courage of the first-generation immigrant sailor who is pursuing citizenship, and the resolve of the Native American Marine seeking restoration of ancestral lands. The things that each one wants are often perceived as threatening to the desires of the others. We do not have to guess at this. The story of America is in large part an anthology of domestic fights, often along racial and ethnic lines, about citizenship, democracy, rights, property, and access to opportunity.
And yet when Lincoln looked out over Gettysburg and when Douglass surveyed Arlington Cemetery, Union soldiers who fought for different things are buried alongside one another—resting eternally with each other though they did not share the exact vision for a more perfect Union.
Memorial Day reminds us that it is possible to sacrifice for people you disagree with, and that unity does not require total alignment. The survival of America depends on the idea that the ideologically, racially, and culturally diverse groups that compose our nation can stand together in solidarity without surrendering their histories or identities. This proposition has been sorely tested—state-sanctioned injustice and vigilante violence have often attended American democracy. Memorial Day, however, is a chance to honor those who demonstrated the feasibility of the American idea, who have personified it in some measure, and who gave their lives in service of it.
But remembering, by itself, is not enough. We must live out the lesson of those we have lost, and this requires that we work with those we disagree with to negotiate who we will be as a nation. Douglass at Arlington paid homage to “the unknown braves who flung themselves into the yawning chasm” between what the nation was and what the nation could be if it lived up to its ideals. The markers in that cemetery and in stone tributes around the world represent the price paid for our space for deliberation today. They commemorate those who gave us their last breath so that America might have more room to breathe.
In that Iraqi summer of 2004, the worst did not happen to us in the careening pickup truck. We made it to the bunker, where men and women in uniform—of every race and ethnicity, from all corners of the country—already lined the long corridor where they were waiting out the hail of bombs outside. With one ear to the banter characteristic of those on deployment together, though it was uncharacteristically hushed in this case out of respect for the three-star general nearby, I learned that my life-changing moment on the airfield was just another Tuesday afternoon for them. And I learned that the danger had felt closer than it actually was.
Though death may not have been as near as I’d imagined, it had gotten close enough to make eye contact for a few seconds. Thankfully, it blinked. Hours later, the all-clear was given and our trip ended without further incident.
Today, I have traded in the uniform for civilian clothes, and my fight for democracy continues on the deeply polarized domestic front. This fight is only possible because for nearly two and half centuries, Americans gave their lives to give the nation the most precious gift possible: more time.
Those who died in the Revolutionary War, including enslaved black people, established a new nation that fell drastically short of the principles upon which they were told it was founded—but they created space and time for the nation to reconcile its errors. Those who died in the Civil War to reunify the country and abolish slavery in the process extended the space and time we had to figure out if a multiracial liberal democracy was possible, even though the gift was soon hijacked by racism and xenophobia. The half million American deaths in World Wars I and II bought America yet more time. And while we have not always used this time wisely or honorably, we have not entirely wasted it. The Union is better today than it was at its inception because of the time that has been purchased on our behalf by the sacrifices of those who knew more time was needed.
But many anti-democratic actors are trying to hurry America back to a more illiberal and intolerant past. Some suggest that the only way we can love America is if we all revere it unconditionally and experience it in the same way— that we must not gaze at the ugliness in our history or critique the policies obsessed with perpetuating inequality for fear that pointing out hypocrisy and imperfections will cause us not to love our country. Others, meanwhile, insist that to celebrate the nation’s undeniable progress since its inception is to give short shrift to the very real problems and disagreements that continue to plague us.
Memorial Day is a reminder that we do not have to give in to either side. The men and women who died serving our country made it possible for us to continue the process of determining what our country should be. In no small measure, the American experiment continues because of those we honor on Memorial Day; the project is possible because of them.
At Gettysburg, Lincoln observed, “we cannot consecrate this ground; the brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.” We should recognize their consecration, not only of battlefields, but of the promise of America. And while we who are alive have not matched their sacrifice, we must do our best not to squander it.