There was a time in this country when the mention of Memorial Day evoked something more than the iconic images of military cemeteries and the Tomb of the Unknown Solider.
The solemn holiday also returned to mind a particular face. In the wake of both world wars, then the wars in Korea and Vietnam, just about every family could recall a brother or father, cousin or friend who had gone off to fight and had not returned. The losses of battle honored on Memorial Day were intimate, not merely institutional.
The shift from a national draft to an all-volunteer military changed that. Military service became a specialized vocation, not a broad civic obligation. Most of us no longer know what it’s like to look at an empty chair at the dining room table and sense the absence of a loved one who died in some faraway place while wearing America’s uniform.
That reality brings real challenges for the country. If few of us know, at some deeply spiritual or emotional level, what the price of military service can cost, we may lack the wisdom to understand when it’s worthwhile to put warriors in harm’s way.
That lack of gravity seems to inform our politics these days. There’s a sense of political contests as only a game, and not, as they ultimately can be, a matter of life and death. The leaders we choose will have the power to decide when and where our warriors fight, and what national interests are at stake. We have an obligation to those who have died — and will die — in service to their country to choose our leaders wisely.
In this campaign year, that obligation looms larger. It should remain on our minds long after Memorial Day has passed.