“We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”
– James A. Garfield
May 30, 1868 Arlington National Cemetery
These words were spoken on the first “Decoration Day” at a ceremony where people decorated the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the American Civil War. Now called Memorial Day this national holiday honors all the people who have died in service to the country. It is a good time to think of legacy and sacrifice. It is a good moment to reflect on what divides people from each other and what unites us in common purpose.
America has its finest hours when people unite for a cause with honor and purpose to improve human conditions or to right wrongdoing. We are a country with deep roots in the value of government acting as an agent for the good of all the people. Many came here to escape persecution, injustice, tyranny and suppression. This has been a land of hope and aspiration, a place where dreams can come true with “freedom and justice for all.” The lofty aspirations of the country’s founding hold modern Americans to a high standard because in the intervening 230 years the world has changed, expectations have changed, and the goal of “freedom and justice for all” is not as transparent as it used to be.
Freedom is not without a cost. To have freedom and justice together requires laws that society agrees to abide by to assure fairness. Otherwise people exploit their own advantage at the expense of others. Some people bully and tyrannize others. To be a just society requires that those with power be held accountable for the justice of their actions within the law. And having a just society requires that the laws protect the people. The People. That means real people with hearts that beat and love and aspire, who sacrifice to achieve their dreams and hopes for their children, who bleed and die for what they believe in if called in times of need. People like my Father, Michael DeMarco, paratrooper in Donovan’s Devils in World War II; Both of my Grandfathers, Angelo DeMarco who fought in Ethiopia in World War I, Michael Strutzel who fought in France in World War I. They fought for the aspirations of their children against opression and despair. Freedom without responsibility and accountability leads to tyranny and chaos.
Memorial Day weekend also calls to mind Rachel Carson’s birthday, May 27, 1907. She called for people to recognize and include in the definition of freedom the defense of the natural environment that supports life on earth. Freedom includes the right to fresh water, clean air, fertile ground and the biodiversity of species that constitute the web of life of which humans are but one part. Human survival to the end of the 21st century requires all people in the world to rise in the defense of our own life support system- the living earth. It is our obligation to our children to preserve the earth as a living system for renewal of fresh water, clean air and fertile ground.
This Memorial Day, America honors many who have died in the defense of oil fields; in conflicts over lands where the bonds of civil life have frayed and torn over massive changes in the conditions of their land from climate change; and in American cities and towns where civil strife rises with violence over injustice. This Memorial Day it is a good opportunity to reflect on what true greatness in a country means. Care for the people. The People!
Care for the conditions that give equity and justice to all the people, not only those with money and power. Care for the rights of people for a fair wage, safe working conditions, and communities where children can thrive and learn. The responsibilities of freedom include weaving a fabric of laws that society abides by with the confidence that society protects the life support system – air, water and land – as well as the most vulnerable and those in need. The country was founded to secure the “Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and our Posterity.” If we are to provide the blessings of liberty to our posterity, we must take responsibility to protect the basic conditions of justice and take precaution in protecting our life support system for our children. Without justice, there is no peace. With out peace there is no hope. Without the Earth, there is no life.