This year there seems to be a stronger public emphasis on distinguishing what Memorial Day is about (remembering the sacrifice of Americans fallen in war) from Veterans Day, and to appreciate Memorial Day’s seriousness and gravity. I’m inspired by everyone out there collectively doing this.
As we remember the fallen, it also seems like an important time to reflect on our politics. Memorial Day offers a strong reminder of just how serious the outcomes of our politics are. Is there anything, after all, more political–more indeterminate, or consequential–than the complex matters surrounding the instances of U.S. military action?
Of course, politics should always in the first instance be an instrument of peace. Our first political goal should always be to weaken the impulses for unnecessary war, both in our nation’s enemies and in ourselves. Our second political goal should be to minimize war’s damages and duration when it must be waged. In any case, the military is ever the physical instrument, or one might say the guarantor, of these political objectives. As such, a strong military can make a well directed politics much more successful, both at home and abroad. Military action can mitigate chaos and carry the day when rational politics between and within nations breaks down. Other fall back remedies to failed politics are unknown, or at least unproven.
A powerful army is therefore one of the first prerequisites for secure political life, at home and around the globe. This is why the primary role of the president of the United States is commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, charged with adhering to the same oath as the military members he or she leads: to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. The president maintains our security successfully in no small part because our president commands a first-class military, leads the free world, and stewards a stockpile of advanced nuclear weapons.
Yet it often feels like we first elect a president, only to then sit back and criticize, and lament the misjudgments of our feckless leaders. We must remember, however, that the president is only a single human being–fallible and in search of direction. He or she is going to be influenced by advisors, poll numbers and election results. We are major players in all this–responsible for raising up a president that can perform this duty effectively and with good judgment. Yes, our votes pick our president, but that isn’t the end of our influence. Our political opinions and our public passions shape our elected president’s judgment, for better or for worse.
In short, our collective political activity shapes and directs our military activity, and a great many have died honorably, individually carrying out small parts of the major judgments generated by our unique political system, of which individually we all play a small part. There is therefore a very special relationship between the fallen American military member, now memorialized, and the American citizen. We do well to recognize the gravity of this, and I’m proud to see that so many seem to be doing just that. We owe that much to those who have lost their lives out of duty and fidelity to our country, despite all of its–and our–evident imperfections.