Editorial: Memorial Day is about leadership, too

The Detroit News

Memorial Day wasn’t always known as such. During the Civil War, widows of fallen soldiers adorned graves with garlands — hence, “Decoration Day.”

Even though there are five veterans cemeteries in Michigan, too many grave sites suffer the holiday without any decoration.

That might have something to do with when, in the late ’60s, lawmakers in Washington moved the traditional date from May 30 to the last Monday in May, creating a three-day weekend for federal employees. It became a mini-vacation instead of what was a day to honor heroes.

America’s military is made up of the bravest men and women in the world, but you wouldn’t know that by visiting a movie theater or sitting in on a university lecture. Soldiers and their missions are regularly shamed by peaceniks in the media and academia alike. They sometimes forget that their freedom to protest is secured by a faceless soul in fatigues.

It might be easy to neglect the sacrifice military members and their families make as many in uniform are often deployed thousands of miles away. But this Memorial Day is an opportunity to reflect on why those American boots must remain deployed.

American leadership is out of style in Washington. Legislators, pundits and the president have all joined the calls to step back from foreign affairs. It comes from a misguided notion that America is what’s wrong with the world. That our overseas contingency operations create problems and perhaps inspire more terrorism.

But one question former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld posed in 1989 still nags: “Who do we want to lead?” Rumsfeld asked a gathering of former secretaries of defense. “Somebody else?” Many in the Obama administration and on the campaign trail would answer yes.

Yet unlike other military forces in history, our men and women have spilled blood for the freedom of others and asked for nothing in return. We don’t occupy. We don’t confiscate. We don’t conquer. When America acts, it is a force for good.

The world is witnessing what happens when America sits it out and others fill the void. Libya could have used some American influence after Colonel Gaddafi’s fall. The civil war in Syria might look differently had we supported moderate opposition groups before they were overrun by radicals. And Iraq may have been better protected from the Islamic State had President Barack Obama not sent too many Americans home too early.

When Obama visited Warsaw in 2014 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Poland’s first semi-free elections, which brought about the end of communism in the country, Lech Wałęsa, the man who led that 1989 electoral sweep, said he had an “interesting” chat with Obama.

“I said that I wished the United States would lead,” Wałęsa told Polish television.

It wasn’t the first time Wałęsa has chided the current administration for taking a back seat. “I hoped that we would regain in America a moral leader,” the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize winner told Fox News in December 2013, “because that’s what the world needs. The world as it is without leadership is dangerous.” This Memorial Day, Americans should take Wałęsa’s words to heart.

When Ronald Reagan last addressed the American people from the Oval Office, he encouraged Americans to “do a better job of getting across that America is freedom —freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise.”

Freedom is “special and rare,” the 40th president said. “It’s fragile; it needs protection.”

Don’t let this Memorial Day pass without offering prayers for those who gave their lives to defend and advance that freedom.