Today is the day where we honor all those men and women who were killed or died while serving in any of the U.S. Armed forces. Whether it was in the great wars that engulfed and changed the world, the small undeclared conflicts our nation has been involved with throughout its history, or keeping the peace by our armed presence in the world, today is the day when we show our appreciation for those who answered the call to arms.
This is not to say that every war or military action was prudent or just, nor that American troops have always acted in an honorable fashion. After all, the same nation that produced the “Greatest Generation” who fought a crusade against Nazism and Imperialism, is the same nation that is still the only nation ever to use an atomic bomb against another nation. For while it is true that we are a proud nation built upon ideals rooted in defending God-given rights, we can at times also be a jaded and imperious nation that gives in the baser angels of human nature.
We are a nation that loves to sing in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” that because Christ “died to make men holy, let us die to make men free” and who praises its fallen soldiers in “America the Beautiful” as those “who more than self their country love and mercy more than life!” And yet we are also a nation that has often been motivated by the rapacious drive of Manifest Destiny and dreams of a Pax Americana around the globe. As Mark Twain sardonically noted in his parody of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”,
"Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword; He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger's wealth is stored; He hath loosed his fateful lightnings, and with woe and death has scored; His lust is marching on."
Ultimately there are no easy or pat narratives that fit our nation’s history for all Americans at all times, especially when it comes to the wars and conflicts America has fought in. For in the end, we inhabit an imperfect and fallen world where sin and strife is inevitable. Moreover, according to Robert J. Hutchinson in his Politically Incorrect Guide to the Bible, “It was only through their long and bloody history that the Jewish people came to understand just how much the Creator of the universe hates war” (Is 1:15-17), and that ultimately “war is the punishment that God metes out for injustice and bloodshed” (Is 4:26-28). In other words, from a Christian point of view, war can be seen as a consequence that God allows to happen in order to chastise people for the evils they inflict upon one another.
And yet in the midst of all our nation’s worldly machinations, there have always been those Americans, whether they were conscripted or volunteered, who were willing to put on the uniform in service of their country. And while not every war may have been just, we have always encouraged our soldiers to war justly so as to live up to our nation’s highest ideals. As for those who did not, since God is outside of time, it is never too late to follow the example of Judas Maccabeus and pray for the deliverance of their souls.
Maccabeus, after he had won a battle, found that some of his fallen soldiers had pagan charms around their necks (a violation of the first commandment), and so he “turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out” after which they took up “a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering” so as to make “atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” (2 Mac 12:42,45)
Nevertheless, for whatever intentions they had, they are the ones who gave of their time and talents, and who said goodbye to their families and their ways of life. They are the ones who endured the spartan conditions of military life and the brutal realities of war. They are the ones who carried with them a desire to fight to maintain our freedoms, our way of life, and they stability we have in the world. And yes, they are also the ones who paid for the price for the sins of our nation when it lusted for power, coveted the wealth of other nations, and turned its back on God and neighbor.
In fact one might imagine the Natural Law, upon which our nation’s founding documents are rooted in and are meant to protect, as an immense “alabaster” millstone that can either be put into use or be placed around our necks. From this perspective, it is a proper and fitting task to decorate the grave stones of our nation’s fallen soldiers on Memorial Day. Because those white tombstones are an apt symbol and reminder of the gravity and immensity of the weight American soldiers carried into war so that we didn’t have to. For this, on this day and always, they deserve our prayers and gratitude.
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