One “great and apparent distinction between man and the inferior animals” is memory (pg. 7). In animals, there seems to be a basic ability to recognize familiarity and act accordingly through instinct, but only humans can capture past events accurately enough to relive stories about our past. Our ability to do this informs how we comprehend reality. It allows us to understand the present and future based on what we know about the past.
However, according to John Witherspoon, even memory cannot provide all that is necessary to extract meaning from the past. To do that requires judgment, our intuitive perception of what is meaningful about things and events. He asserts, “A man of memory, without judgment, is a fool.” But when judgment is applied to memory it acquires “luster” and commands “universal esteem” (pg. 260).
Memorial Day is the perfect illustration of this phenomenon. We intuitively perceive that there is something good, noble, and honorable about sacrificing oneself for the protection and preservation of others. We know that in doing so we are not necessarily saying that the war or conflict itself was just. Many believe that the wars these men and women died in were misguided or, in some cases, immoral. There are even some who believe that taking up arms in any capacity is wrong. But very few believe that this makes the sacrifice of individual servicemembers any less honorable.
I believe this is because we perceive through our moral sense that self-sacrifice for another is the highest of human acts. It is the one human act that defies explanation within a utilitarian, relative, or social constructivist view of morality. It may be argued that a willingness to give one’s life for another is driven by the belief that they will be rewarded in the afterlife, and is therefore still a selfish act. But I have known soldiers who did not believe in an afterlife and were still willing to give their lives in the service of their country. That being the case, only one of two things may be true: either they believed there was an afterlife despite their stated denial of that belief, or they perceived that what they were doing was worthy of self-sacrifice in and of itself.
Memorial Day when properly observed is about remembering individuals who have made the ultimate sacrifice simply because they deserve to be remembered. But it is also about fostering in ourselves the courage to emulate that self-sacrifice. The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates suggests “the value to society at large of noble storytelling” is that in “capturing the popular imagination” it “inspires people to noble lives” (pg. 198). Memorial Day is an exercise in this kind of storytelling. This “study of human excellence, then, helps us develop our own inner capacities and thus construct the best possible self” (pg. 199).
So, to truly observe Memorial Day the right way is to “give ourselves over to visions of excellence and of inner meaning until they drive us to action, and we must persist in exploring such visions and acting on them until personal virtue and justice toward others become ingrained habit” (pg. 199). The purpose of the holiday is to not only remember those who sacrificed but also to understand those acts of sacrifice and ourselves in relation to them. Then we discover how we may absorb their lessons and grow into a higher state of moral excellence. In this way, we truly honor their sacrifice, both as individuals and as a society.
The key is in understanding not only what they did or the circumstances in which they did them, but also why those sacrifices were worth making. Whether we tell the stories on a national scale, focusing on the protection and preservation of the nation and its interests, or on a personal level, such as sacrificing to save fellow servicemember, every story is full of moral truth and meaning. To make the most of their sacrifice is to learn the lessons they have to teach us through their actions.