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Dedicated to the Great Task

We honor our fallen best with unwavering devotion to democracy.

The accounts appeared the same day in a Midwestern newspaper reporting on the return home of the remains of two young American soldiers, ages 21 and 24. The 24-year-old Marine sergeant died just a week earlier from injuries sustained while defusing a bomb in Iraq. Some 3,000 mourners lined the route of a procession bearing his flag-draped coffin to a service attended by hundreds of friends and loved ones. The day before at a nearby airport, the remains of the 21-year-old Army private arrived from the U.S. Army’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. This young man was reported missing in action November 28, 1950, at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir deep in North Korea. He likely died the day after Chinese troops poured across the border to drive the American and United Nations forces back south. No one knew this young man’s fate until Army scientists and anthropologists recovered his remains and those of three others on the eastern shore of Chosin. Fifty-six years later, the soldier’s younger brother — the last living member of his immediate family — welcomed him home.

These two young men who were returned to their hometown on the same day may have left that place more than a half-century apart, fought and died in different wars under vastly divergent circumstances, but they are forever united in their unspent youth and their families’ grief. They are united as well by the rituals, respects and tributes our nation bestows upon those who give their last full measure of devotion to their country. In reality, though, words are inadequate gestures that can only begin to honor those who answer the call to do our democracy’s bidding on the battlefield. The true measure of our gratitude is our devotion to the ideals for which they died.

In our nation’s most celebrated dedication ritual at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, the keynote speaker was leading intellect and orator of the day Edward Everett. He described how the ancient Greeks typically honored their lost warriors with rituals written into law. At Marathon, where Greece’s existence was in the balance, an even greater tribute went to the fallen as they were entombed on the battlefield itself, forever hallowing that ground. As Everett said of the dead at Gettysburg, so should we say of the two who died in Korea and Iraq and the legions of young who have perished in our service: “No lapse of time, no distance of space shall cause you to be forgotten.”

The second speaker that day at Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln had a mission not simply to honor the dead and dedicate a graveyard but to somehow convince citizens that the awful bloodletting that had occurred there was not only essential, but needed to go on. As our cover story reminds us, in some 200 meticulously crafted — and long remembered — words, Lincoln somehow did that and, at the same time, redefined the meaning and ideals of America for generations to come.