Remembering the Face

Let us remember those who have fallen with the same intensity and reality as the friends for whom Memorial Day has a face.

My dear friend, Joe Mastro, is a veteran of the Vietnam War. He recently shared a story with me that I won’t be able to forget. One of Joe’s tasks during the war was to process incoming soldiers. With a hitch in his voice, Joe told me about one such young man named Canard. “I’ll never forget his name,” Joe told me. As he was being processed, Canard asked Joe, “What is the casualty rate in this zone?” Trying to comfort Canard without being unrealistic, Joe told him that the casualty rate wasn’t too bad. “But he was scared, Abdu,” Joe told me. Yes, Canard was scared, but he was brave. Courage, after all, isn’t the absence of fear. It is action in the face of fear.

But the Canard’s story isn’t a happy one. “Not two months later, I had to pull Canard’s file,” Joe said. “He took a bullet to the chest and died.” It was at this point that Joe choked up. “I can still remember his face. To me, Canard’s face is the face of Memorial Day.”

As Joe finished, I couldn’t help but think of the many other veterans for whom Memorial Day has a face; it’s not just a date.

Memorial Day ought not to be an abstract idea. It isn’t merely a reason to take a day off from work or school to (supposedly) observe a fleeting remembrance of “those who gave their lives for this country.” Real soldiers died in battle with foreign grit in their teeth. Real voices uttered their last words thousands of miles from loved ones. For so many veterans and those who didn’t serve but whose loved ones served and never came home, Memorial Day isn’t a concept or abstraction. It’s visceral. It’s real. That makes the reason for the memorial—their sacrifice—more than an abstract concept. Sacrifice is visceral. Sacrifice is real.

My mind can’t help but draw a striking contrast with the reality of the kind of self-sacrifice we remember with some of the ideas espoused by the author Yuval Noah Harare. In his bestselling book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harare explains that all cultures across human history have embraced myths to perpetuate their existences. Among the myths Harare lists are corporations, gods, democracy, money, economics, nations, and even freedom and equality. Harare isn’t advocating that we abandon these myths, he simply argues that we have no real, objective existence. Rather, humanity has invented them into function. It’s important to be fair to Harare. He’s not poking fun or making light of these myths. He thinks they’re terribly important social phenomena. They are, however, no more and no less than that. They are useful and powerful fictions. They are so powerful, in fact, that people have been willing to sacrifice their lives to perpetuate the ideals the myths uphold.

It’s true that some things are useful fictions. As a lawyer I can affirm that things like corporations, which exist as separate legal persons, don’t exist in the same concrete sense as human persons. The concept of a corporations serves a legal system that allows people to function, well, corporately for a common economic goal.

But I take exception with the idea that freedom and equality are conceptual myths. Of course, a secular atheist like Harare would claim that they are subjective concepts that help society function and nothing more. If humanity is all there is, if there is no ultimate authority like God, then such things are mere fictions. Most of us recognize, however, that there is something far more substantial and objective to liberty and equality than subjectively useful but ultimately false ideas. The objectivity of human value, liberty, and equality can only come from God who is the grounding and source of all being. He is the necessary being and the one from whom all other things come into existence. And so when God declares that we are all created in his image (and therefore equal and equally deserving of freedom), it isn’t a matter of opinion. Human value and equality are baked into the very existence of creation.

Self-sacrifice for the sake of human value and equality is similarly baked into creation. The Bible declares that that Jesus—the Lamb of God—was slain before the foundation of the world. In other words, human value and freedom was in the mind of God before we existed, his knowledge that we would use that freedom to fall was prior to our creation, and the cross’s sacrifice to pay for our redemption was the divine rescue plan all along.

Human value and equality are baked into the very existence of creation.

I have always admired the idea of self-sacrifice and have aspired to it. That is one reason why I find the gospel to be so attractive. God is the greatest possible being. It stands to reason, therefore, that the greatest possible being would express the greatest possible ethic. That ethic is love. And the greatest possible being would express the greatest possible ethic in the greatest possible way. The greatest possible way to express love is self-sacrifice. There is no other worldview that tells us of this most excellent way to express love like the Christian worldview. The words echo every day in my mind: “For God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

What has all of this got to do with Memorial Day? It is this: Memorial Day is about what is concrete, what is real, not what is a useful myth. Both the human dignity and the sacrifices so many have made to secure it are both real. In a well-known Memorial Day speech, President Ronald Reagan pointed out the youth of those who have died on the battlefields: “Most of them were boys when they died and they gave up two lives. The one they were living and the one they would have lived.” Those sacrifices are not abstractions nor were they made for useful myths. No, their two-fold sacrifices were for human dignity and liberty, both of which are quite real because God embedded them into the reality He created. After all, He gave his one and only Son so that all of us could be saved (John 3:16). And He did it because of love. Not an abstract love. Not a conceptual love. He did it because of a concrete love for each one of us.

It may seem sappy, maybe even superficial, to inject love as a Memorial Day sentiment. To do so runs the risk of turning a day of austere reflection into a Hallmark holiday. But such love is the heart of the sacrifices made by so many so that so many more could live in a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Such a love compels the hearts of men and women to give their every effort in service to those they will never meet. I think of Martin Treptow, who fought in World War I. He was killed on the Western Front but had a diary with a note that read: “I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone.” I don’t pretend to know Treptow’s religious beliefs, but his motivation to act as if the struggle depended on him reflects the reality that our salvation depends alone on Christ.

Let us remember those who have fallen with the same intensity and reality as my friend Joe Mastro, for whom Memorial Day has a face. Let us remember real men and women who have offered themselves as real sacrifices, for a real cause, with the real love of real people. Let us remember each individual person, even those whose faces we’ll never see or names we’ll never know.

For some of us, the names are fresh—they are sons, daughters, husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers, who died. They may have done so in wars of recent memory or even just in the past six months. Time has no hold on the reality and depth of their sacrifices. May time have no hold on how strongly their faces burn in our memories.

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