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Inside Politics
Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

Which holiday is this?


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WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- Despite the highest gas prices ever recorded, according to the American Automobile Association, more than 31 million of us will be traveling in our cars between 6 p.m. Friday and midnight Monday.

During those same hours, calculates the National Safety Council, some 471 Americans will lose their lives in traffic accidents.

There will be countless cook-outs and picnics, millions of beers consumed, and even a few parades and an occasional speech. Sadly, that will be MemorialDayWeekend -- one word -- 2005.

Memorial Day is no longer that holiday when communities and country unite to recall voices that have been forever stilled, or to miss again the young fathers who will never guide their daughters' growth; brothers and sisters, frozen in their youth and our memory, whose sacrifice and whose strength made and preserved our nation.

A living American hero John McCain said it well: "War is awful. Nothing, not the valor with which it is fought nor the nobility of the cause it serves, can glorify war. War is wretched beyond description, and only a fool or a fraud could sentimentalize its cruel reality. Whatever is won in war, it is loss the veteran remembers."

War demands equality of sacrifice. That is a genuine American value that has been ignored, if not repealed, in the Iraqi war, now in its third year.

All the sacrifice and all the suffering have been borne by those Americans who volunteered to serve their country and their loved ones. For all the rest of us, we have been asked to pay no price, to bear no burden.

This is the longest war in U.S. history to be fought without a military draft and without tax increases. Instead, our leadership has asked to underwrite the war by accepting three tax cuts.

On this Memorial Day, even as we pay all the appropriate tributes to those now serving and those who have served, we are forced to confront a profoundly changed reality about ourselves: McCain's America, the culture of heroism and sacrifice, is in full retreat.

Our institutions that demanded and that honored sacrifice -- the military draft, the church and traditional morality, to name a few -- have been either discredited or dismantled.

Ralph Whitehead of the University of Massachusetts, who has thought long and hard about these changes, believes our contemporary culture has devalued individual sacrifice for the common good and no longer honors our reciprocal obligations, as fellow citizens, to each other and to our nation.

This surely makes it more difficult for any leader, so inclined, to summon the nation united to sustained sacrifice.

Here is Whitehead's analysis: "Over the past generation or so, liberals in America have 'deregulated' the nation's culture while conservatives have been busy 'deregulating' the nation's economy."

The result, the product of an almost implicit libertarian agreement between liberals and conservatives, is a non-aggression pact: I won't meddle too much with your lifestyle if you don't meddle with my free market. (Obviously the current social-issues war over federal judges risks shattering that compact.)

What has emerged, if we are candid, is an American society and culture where individual autonomy and self-expression are revered, where the individual's pre-eminent obligation is to himself and where the uninterrupted, private pursuit of wealth qualifies as a contribution to the common good. There is little room in this equation for sacrifice.

No longer, as we have learned from recent national campaigns, is the patriot one who selflessly puts the common good before personal safety or one who voluntarily sacrifices self for the safety and well-being of the country. That is archaic, outdated. Patriotism no longer has to do with one's personal courage or even conduct.

By today's standards, it is quite easy to become a patriot. It involves no personal risk or sacrifice. All you have to do is to give enthusiastic, uncritical backing to the unilateral invasion and occupation of an agreed-upon unfriendly nation.

As for me, I prefer the earlier, more traditional patriotism we all grew up with.

And I prefer that earlier Memorial Day, too, when we visited the graves and brought baskets of flowers and thanked those who had served and sacrificed.


Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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