National Review

Don’t Forget the Purpose of Memorial Day

We, those of us who have not laid down our lives for our country, owe one solemn duty to our fallen heroes: Remember them.

Media Fellow
U.S. Army soldiers from the Third U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) place flags at gravesites in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., during the Flags In ceremony, May 23, 2024.(Elizabeth Fraser/Arlington National Cemetery/U.S. Army)
Soldiers from the Third US Infantry Regiment (the Old Guard) place flags at gravesites in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, on May 23, 2024. (Elizabeth Fraser/Arlington National Cemetery/US Army)

Do you remember Abbey Gate!?”

“Lance Corporal Kareem Nikoui, Second Battalion, First Marines!”

“Thirteen Marines!”

When Gold Star father Steve Nikoui screamed those words at President Biden during this year’s State of the Union address, for most Americans, it had likely been years since they had even thought about the Abbey Gate bombing that killed 13 U.S. service members in August 2021. But for Nikoui, I doubt a single day has passed that he hasn’t thought about his son.

Over the days that followed the State of the Union, much of the media coverage centered on Nikoui’s arrest and how D.C.’s attorney general ultimately dropped the charges against him. However, little attention was paid to why a Gold Star father would be driven to such ends.

Nikoui explained in a news interview:

“I was praying, hoping that [President Biden] would mention Afghanistan or our kids . . . I’ve been waiting for three years for this man to say my son’s name into this chamber and he never did.”

A Gold Star father simply wanted to be heard. He wanted his son’s story to be acknowledged and given proper respect. He’s not wrong to want that.

Nikoui’s outburst and subsequent arrest are more of an indictment of our country than of him. The fact that the father of a hero slain while defending America felt he had to interrupt the State of the Union and risk criminal prosecution just to be heard is a national embarrassment.

It should have never come to that. We, those of us who have not laid down our lives for our country, owe one solemn duty to our fallen heroes: Remember them. In fact, that’s the purpose of Memorial Day.

We show gratitude to the fallen, state their names in halls of power, and share their stories with others. That’s our burden as a country. We ought not offload that responsibility onto grieving Gold Star families.

That’s also why much of Memorial Day is marked by repetition. We tend to repeat the same refrains. “Honoring those who paid the ultimate sacrifice,” or “paying respect for our fallen heroes who died for our freedom.” Trumpets play the same tune of “Taps.” Flags are lowered in the same manner. Each year, we see a similar display. We repeat these displays to keep the memory of the fallen fresh in our minds. This is especially true at military ceremonies.

As an officer in the Army, I could almost guess exactly what my commanding officer would say whenever it came time to honor the fallen. And I thought that such repetition somehow made the moment less meaningful. If we were more sincere, we would take the time to come up with something new, right? Wrong.

In fact, we repeat the same phrases over and over again in the military partly because it makes our respect for the fallen become second nature. The act of acknowledging those who didn’t make it home to their families is embedded into military culture. If a formal ceremony is ever hosted on a military base and there isn’t at least some acknowledgement of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, the oversight would be immediately apparent to everyone involved.

The same is not true in everyday American life — indeed, not even in our nation’s capital.

It wasn’t until I reentered the civilian world that I realized the importance of repetition. It is important that the commander-in-chief visits Arlington National Cemetery, lays the traditional wreath, and shares a familiar speech about how freedom isn’t free and how it’s paid for by the sacrifices of the men and women who laid down their lives in service to our country. We’ve all heard the speech before, yet we should all hear it again.

We repeat these important statements of truth so that they don’t fall out of our national consciousness. So that a Gold Star father doesn’t have to cry out on behalf of his slain son to ensure his memory doesn’t fade.

It’s not hard to see what would happen if the repetition ends. Solemn moments of honor could easily be crowded out by the noise of American life. Memorial Day would be all about marking the beginning of summer instead of marking the graves of soldiers.

That’s why repetition is critical. This is especially true in a time when many Americans don’t know someone serving in the military. A recent survey showed that 50 percent of America’s youth admit they know “little to nothing” about military service. Even worse, another poll found that 72 percent of those asked would not be willing to volunteer to serve in the armed forces were America to enter a major conflict. It isn’t hard to see why the tradition of honoring military sacrifice is needed now more than ever.

Like all things, our collective respect for those killed in combat is susceptible to atrophy. Over time, we naturally begin to take our freedom for granted. We slowly start to forget the cost they paid. Yet when we repeat our statements of gratitude for those who gave their last full measure of devotion, we push their stories to the forefront of our national memory. We ensure that grieving Gold Star families never have to wonder if we’ve forgotten their children’s sacrifice.

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