Like many around our nation, I had on Memorial Day the high privilege of delivering a tribute to those who have served in the military and given their lives in wars that have enveloped America and the nations of the world, from Lexington and Concord to Iraq and Afghanistan.
On a cool afternoon, under a blue-gray sky, 1,000 flags planted by members of the Idaho Falls Exchange Club flowed rhythmically in the wind, reminding a sprawling audience gathered at the Field of Honor of the unrelenting spirit and perseverance that have propelled America's greatest victories.
Those who would memorialize fallen heroes will be forever overshadowed by Abraham Lincoln's majestic address at Gettysburg. The use of footnotes in a speech would be awkward to say the least, and while it is certainly just to observe it, no speaker can any longer say without quoting Lincoln, that "it is altogether fitting and appropriate" that we honor those who have sacrificed their lives for the United States. Only the most audacious speaker would dare to borrow from Lincoln a line that, while indisputably true, would suffer by comparison if he were to remind audiences that those who have given their lives on the battlefield had demonstrated to their nation "the last full measure of devotion." And certainly it is beyond the pale for a speaker to conclude in a peroration, however true it is, that brave men and women have given "their lives" so that this "nation might live."
Speakers may be pardoned, however, for invoking the American political creed, beautifully summed up by Lincoln - who else? - that ours is a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people." In the end, of course, there is no shame in being overshadowed by Abraham Lincoln, and standing in the shadow of giants can be inspiring.
As Americans of every stripe and color stand united in their tributes to men and women in uniform, and honor the great sacrifices endured by those who have lost their lives on the battlefield, we might pause to ask what exactly were they fighting for, and how can we best honor their memories and sacrifices?
When soldiers have defended Old Glory, they have defended a set of values, enshrined first, in the Declaration of Independence, and later the Constitution. Beyond vanquishing foreign enemies who sought to promote tyranny, domination and oppression, our soldiers historically have fought to defend principles and freedoms that form the foundation and character of our nation.
If American soldiers have waged war on foes and enemies who would champion inequality, racism and degradation of the rights, dignity and integrity of human beings, we'd hardly be honoring their memories if we engaged in similar behavior.
If our soldiers sacrificed their lives to defend the proposition as Lincoln said, that ours is a system "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," we'd hardly be honoring their memories if we enacted laws and policies that ignored that cornerstone principle.
If our soldiers sacrificed their lives to defend the Constitution, we'd hardly be paying tribute to their sacrifices if governmental officials ignored constitutional restraints, abused power, violated the Bill of Rights, shredded the rule of law or failed to perform their duties and responsibilities.
And American citizens would hardly be honoring the memories of our heroes if they failed to perform their own duties as citizens, including the responsibility to be informed, active, participating citizens, who monitor governmental actions and policies and decry violations of the rights of their fellow citizens.
Honoring the memories of our fallen heroes involves much more than saluting the flag and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. If we truly wish to honor their memories, to ensure "that the dead shall not have died in vain," then we will commit ourselves to defending the constitutional values for which they gave their lives.
Adler is the director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University, where he holds appointment as the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs. He has lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution, the Presidency and the Bill of Rights.