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Our Opinion

Our Opinion: What is our duty to the fallen?

Memorial Day Flag Gardens

Bill Allen, of Winthrop, who served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, volunteers Thursday to maintain the Massachusetts Military Heroes Flag Garden at Boston Common, by replacing American flags that the wind may have knocked over.

Memorial Day weekend is a cause for celebration — for togetherness, revelry and communal joy. It is also cause for reflection, and reflecting is what America desperately needs to do right now.

While Memorial Day became an official federal holiday in 1971, its origins stretch farther back into our nation’s history. First known as Decoration Day, it began in the mid-1860s as a way to honor soldiers who died in the Civil War. Decoration Day gradually morphed into Memorial Day, and during World War I the holiday evolved into the one we’re familiar with now, commemorating American military personnel who died in all wars.

There is no way to fully repay those who gave it all for our nation, its people and its ideals. The thanks and the reverence we pay them on Memorial Day is the least we can do. As part of that minimum responsibility, we must grapple with how we sustain the values for which they sacrificed. For what did they lay down their lives? What is the more perfect union for which they marched into harm’s way and never returned?

Wrestling with those questions now carries a painful irony. On a holiday that originated to commemorate the blood spilt in a war to preserve our union, much of America is pitted in a ruthless new battle against itself. While this division is not as totalizing as social media or cable news might make it seem, zealots exploit those arenas to amplify and mainstream the toxic bile fermented from the rock-bottom of our discourse. It often seems there are more partisans than patriots, more demagogues than defenders of democracy, more reasons to tear our fellow Americans apart rather than unite for common cause.

Yes, this is painful to highlight on a day when some would simply rather celebrate the beginning of summer. But Memorial Day should not be just a tacit acknowledgement of those who fulfilled their most costly duty to America. We also must acknowledge our duty to them, a legacy that heroes paid with their lives to hand us. The fallen have already given everything they possibly could. The maintenance of that for which they paid this ultimate sacrifice is on us.

Did they die to defend sacred traditions like the peaceful transfer of power so that it could be undermined whenever it’s convenient for would-be autocrats? Did they die in reverence to the soul of our nation only to see it warped by hatred and conspiracy-mongering such that we turn weapons of war on our fellow citizens like enemy combatants? Did they die for democracy so that it could devolve from substantive and respectful disagreement into culture war nonsense and poisonous polarization? Did they die to protect a country that was dead-set on ripping itself apart at the seams anyway?

If you want the answer to those questions to be “no,” then it is on us — all of us — to do something about the state of our union. It is the very least we owe to the fallen on this holiday and every day.

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