Since Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg 150 years ago, we have gone through the gamut of attitudes toward veterans—from hero worship to appreciation to apathy to anger to honor.
Lincoln lauded the contributions of the soldiers with an awe rarely heard from a president. Other presidents have surely praised soldiers, but none with the reverence that Lincoln did: the soldiers who fought and died had already dedicated, consecrated and hallowed the ground he had been called to dedicate—his feeble words were hollow when compared to the acts of bravery and sacrifice of those who lay in the cemetery at Gettysburg.
Today we honor veterans with words and sometimes acts of kindness that vary from discounted meals to news stories of their return. We honor those who died with tributes and flag-draped coffins at their funerals. We have our moments of silence, and then we move on.
But we fail to do what Lincoln called on the nation to do on that fall day in 1863: finish the work that they had fought and died to insure—the survival of our experiment in democracy and its endurance in a form that represents the people. Would Lincoln call the government we have in Washington today a government of the people, by the people, and for the people? If not, then have we not succeeded in the very thing Lincoln implored us to do—make the sacrifice of soldiers, living and dead, then and now, count for something. Did they die in vain if we leave the cause unfinished? We should not need a tragic war to unite us; the cause of democracy should.