“The last full measure of service and sacrifice”: A Memorial Day Reflection

todayJune 2, 2023

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By Rev. W. Nick Taliaferro | WURD Radio

There’s something a bit perverse about watching people plan Memorial Day cookouts and parties. This is supposed to be a holiday set aside to remember the honored dead, so watching people set up their parties and cookouts is tantamount to watching folks setting out burgers and potato salad on your Uncle Harry’s coffin at his funeral! It just seems a bit sacrilegious.

But then again, thinking about the horrors of war and the teeming numbers of lives lost over the span of years, well that’s enough to make you want to lose yourself in a party. Reflecting on the human toll of war – the teeming masses of men and women, young and old, lost on the fields of battle in America’s dozen or so officially recognized wars – is enough to tarnish the soul and turn the stomach. 

Increasing the sadness is the fact that most of those lost were young people; mostly our sons, dying in the springtime of their lives. It is shattering to think of these young men lying still, in the vice-grip of Death, having bled out on some anonymous patch of earth under the horrifying circumstances of armed conflict. Their beautiful bodies – brimming with the noonday energies of youth – lying torn and broken by bullets or bombs or bayonets, while many of them called out to either their mom or their God.

Who wants to contemplate that?

But we must. We are duty-bound to recognize the noble and honorable causes that motivated many of these men (and some women, too) to give the last full measure of sacrifice. To be willing to selflessly offer yourself in defense of home and country, and to follow orders that put you in harm’s way, is an act worthy of notice and commemoration. Memorial Day calls us to do that.

But the solemn contemplation of their sacrifice also begs the further question: sacrifice… for what?

Admittedly, most of our honored dead were led into service and sacrifice by noble and honorable motivations. They heard the call and answered it, and they perceived themselves to as providing an honorable service to their country. They weren’t so much fueled by a hatred for an enemy that was before them as they were compelled by a love for those whom they left behind! 

But unfortunately, that’s not always what they were fighting for.

Sometimes wars are fought for less than noble reasons. And it is painful to realize that honorable sacrifices were made for less than honorable causes.

For example, there were the so-called Indian Wars, where the United States took up arms to further the oppression and genocide of the indigenous people of this purloined land. It was a shameful and obscene endeavor, rooted in bigotry and steeped in greed; but still, we must honor those who died (on both sides!)

Then there was the Mexican-American War, prosecuted under the leadership of a President (Polk) seduced by the twisted theology of “Manifest Destiny”. Believing that God had ordained the western expansion of American hegemony, this nation determined to own this land mass from sea to shining sea  – even if acquiring that land required the forceful and unethical taking of that land from the people of Mexico, who owned it at the time.

And then there was Vietnam.

Born amidst the twisted anti-communist fears after WWII, the Vietnam “Conflict” (after all, it was never declared a “war”) swallowed up some of our best and brightest young men in a bloody conflagration that proved relatively meaningless. Robert McNamara, U.S. Secretary of Defense at the height of the conflict, later wrote in his book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, that they (government leaders) knew that they “…were wrong, terribly wrong” in prosecuting this war. But that still didn’t stop us from pouring over $150 Billion – and over 58,000 American lives – into what we now acknowledge as a “mistake”.

Still, we are bound to honor those who died – including my cousin, Napoleon Taliaferro; who died in Vietnam on June 15, 1968.

I have come to accept the demands of Memorial Day, and I don’t count it robbery to remember those who honorably attempted to serve this nation, and in so doing poured out the last full measure of service and sacrifice.

But in remembering them I am also led to mourn – not simply those who died, but instead I mourn the fact that as human beings we continue to believe that we can solve problems by continuing to throw the bodies and souls of precious young people into the churning carnage of war. I mourn the reality of living in a world where untold wealth is willingly poured into the manufacturing of tools of destruction, while we then go on to scratch and battle over how little we can give to educating our young, caring for our sick, and providing for our infirm elderly.

On this Memorial Day, I am shedding a tear for the fact that all around us in this beautiful, bounteous world, even now children and women are being slaughtered because men with conflicting ideas have not found a better way than war to settle their differences.

…and reflecting upon these matters can lead to a better appreciation for how the anesthesia of potato salad, social celebration, and the sound of a sizzling grill might just be needed to help drown out the pain of all that is invoked by the recollections of Memorial Day.

Taliaferro is an ordained minister, has pastored three churches in Philadelphia, and previously served the City of Phila as both the Director of Faith-Based Initiatives and the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations. He currently hosts WURD Radio’s evening drive talk show, from 4-7pm.


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Written by: Nick Taliaferro

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