Memorial Day – The Ultimate “Start with Why” Reminder

Gettysburg-Address-MacRo-Report-Blog-111413…that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…
Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863


This is primarily a “let’s think about getting better in our business work life” blog. But, at times we look at other concerns. Memorial Day is certainly a day that calls for such reflection.

A couple of days ago, Bob Morris posted A Brief History of Memorial Day. It is very much worth reading.

Here’s a thought I want to suggest: in today’s business world, there is much being written about “finding meaning.” For one example, Simon Sinek’s TED Talk, and book, Start with Why, have resonated deeply.

Well, it is pretty tough to find a deeper or greater meaning than this: serving one’s country to protect what most deeply matters.

I never served. But, like most my age, I had a father who served in the military, an uncle, a father-in-law (he is still living), two brothers who served, and others going further back in the family tree who also served… One brother just retired after a rich and full career in the Air Force. And, one of our two sons served (as did his wife). Thankfully, in that list, they all lived.

It’s been interesting to observe my father-in-law’s memory (he is now 92 years old) of his time in the Navy in these recent days. He stood just feet away from a direct hit by a kamikaze pilot on his destroyer in the Pacific. He lost fellow sailors that day. His hands were burned in the attack, but I suspect the wounds go much deeper than any such physical wounds. But he did live, when others around him did not. Only once did he ever speak of that in my presence. It was a vivid, painful memory for him.

Decoration Day, May, 1899
Decoration Day, May, 1899

Though the practice of decorating the graves of the fallen has ancient roots, that first “official” Decoration Day was in May, 1868. Some 600,000 had been killed in the Civil War, and there was a very good chance – a virtual certainty – that everyone left standing had known someone personally who had fallen in that war.

Today, not many of us have known someone personally who lost their life in Iraq or Afghanistan.

One way to study war is to simply look at the number of people killed. And, thankfully, those numbers have gone down dramatically. (A full chart can be found here; and here).

A couple of quick comparisons. The total killed in World War I and World War II is just breathtakingly sad (right at 522,000 killed). The total number of U.S. killed in the Vietnam War is not a whole lot higher than the number killed in the Battle of Gettysburg. (Vietnam – 58,209; Gettysberg – 51,112). And the total number of U. S. killed in Iraq and Afghanistan together stands at 6717.

And, of course, one reason fewer die is that we have gotten much, much better at protecting folks, and providing the kind of medical care that can save their life after a wound. To put it simply, many of the wounded in our most recent conflicts would have died in any earlier war.

But, of courses, numbers are numbers. Behind each is a story of a brother, a sister, a son or daughter, a mother or father who did not live to build the future that would have awaited.

Now, back the issue of the “why.” There have been lots of debates about whether or not we should have gotten immersed in specific wars. At times, the “why” has not been quite as clear. But there are two that, I think, have such clear “whys” behind them – maybe clearer than some others — that we really get it. Every sacrifice was worth it!

Consider World War II. Here’s a thought question: what would have happened if Hitler had won, and thus Hitler’s “Final Solution” stood? To think that a systematic attempt to wipe from the earth an entire people, the Jewish people, could have stood as “acceptable” because the conquering side had sanctioned it… Every attempt to stop Hitler flowed from what was, without any doubt, a compelling “why.”

Jeff Daniels as Colonel Chamberlain
Jeff Daniels as Colonel Chamberlain

And, I remember being moved by the speech in the movie (made for TV) Gettysburg. Though I doubt the exact words of the speech were preserved, the fictionalized account is certainly based on fact. On the American Rhetoric page, it is titled: Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain Addresses Maine Soldiers on What We’re Fighting For. Here’s the key excerpt:

This is a different kind of army. If you look back through history, you will see men fighting for pay, for women, for some other kind of loot. They fight for land, power, because a king leads them or — or just because they like killing. But we are here for something new. This has not happened much in the history of the world. We are an army out to set other men free.
America should be free ground — all of it. Not divided by a line between slave state and free — all the way, from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow. No man born to royalty. Here, we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was. Here, you can be something. Here, is the place to build a home.
But it’s not the land. There’s always more land.
It’s the idea that we all have value — you and me.
What we’re fighting for, in the end, we’re fighting for each other.

We spend so much energy and worry and effort on things that do not have much of a compelling “why” behind them. On Memorial Day, we really do remember that there are some things that matter greatly – and there are people who gave (and give) their time, their energy, their intellect, their heart, and some, ultimately, their lives, all because the why behind such efforts was/is indeed so great.

On this Memorial Day, we are grateful for every one of these people, and their efforts.


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