In between the picnics and barbecues celebrating the unofficial start of summer, Americans this Memorial Day have plenty of reason to stop and honor the somber meaning and purpose of the day.
On this day of remembrance, the sacrifices of those who fought the nation's battles are not all a matter of history and the past tense. The nation's battles continue. The debt we owe to those who fight those battles remains.
The peaceful scenes unfolding in backyards and parks today are something of a happy illusion. People are at ease because of the blood and sweat of those who have taken up arms, past and present, to protect the nation's security and well-being.
Yet the nation's enemies do not rest. With a new president in the White House, strategy may have changed but the old courage and determination of members of the Armed Forces is still being tested. As flag-draped coffins bear poignant witness, the ultimate sacrifice is still being asked of those who serve in our name.
In Iraq, U.S. forces are preparing to withdraw from the vanguard of the fight by June 30 but it will likely remain dangerous duty for some time. In Afghanistan, the situation has gone from bad to worse and President Barack Obama is boosting U.S. forces. One can argue about the wisdom of all this -- as this newspaper has done -- but there is no arguing about the merit of those who salute and get on with the job, whatever theater of war it may be.
Though words are inadequate in the face of great sacrifice -- as Lincoln himself suggested in his great oration of remembrance, the Gettysburg Address -- we offer ours in the hope that they will be a claim on the community conscience to do more than treat this day a holiday. Lest we forget.
If our words are not up to the task, we supplement them with a poem that distills the sorrow of war. Once known to school children as a classic of heroic literature, the piece was composed by the Irish poet Charles Wolfe.
It concerns Sir John Moore, who led a British army in Spain in the Peninsular War against Napoleon's forces. He was killed with victory at hand at the Battle of Corunna on Jan. 16, 1809.
The Burial of Sir John Moore After Corunna
Not a drum was heard, nor a funeral note,
As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O'er the grave where our hero we buried.
We buried him darkly at dead of night,
The sods with our bayonets turning;
By the struggling moonbeam's misty light
And the lantern dimly burning.
No useless coffin enclosed his breast,
Nor in sheet nor in shroud we wound him;
But he lay like a warrior taking his rest
With his martial cloak around him.
Few and short were the prayers we said,
And we spoke not a word of sorrow;
But we steadfastly gazed on the face that was dead,
And we bitterly thought of the morrow.
We thought, as we hollowed his narrow bed
And smoothed down his lonely pillow,
That the foe and the stranger would tread o'er his head,
And we far away on the billow!
Lightly they'll talk of the spirit that's gone
And o'er his cold ashes upbraid him --
But little he'll reck, if they let him sleep on
In the grave where a Briton has laid him.
But half of our heavy task was done
When the clock struck the hour for retiring:
And we heard the distant and random gun
That the foe was sullenly firing.
Slowly and sadly we laid him down,
From the field of his fame fresh and gory;
We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,
But left him alone with his glory.