Memorial Day on the last day in May has come to represent the beginning of summer even though the laws of astronomy give that designation to a different date. It is a three day weekend holiday designated by Congress. There are few better times to buy mattresses or large home appliances. People flock to the beach on this day and gather around swimming pools and barbecue pits. American flags fly from the porches of homes all across the land. For many the true intent of Memorial Day has become lost in a haze of celebration having little to do with what this national holiday was originally intended to be.
The Civil War left our nation broken and bereft. Over 600,000 Americans had lost their lives in the conflict. People in both the north and the south attempted to heal their wounds and sorrows with annual tributes to those who had fallen in battle. The homage sometimes included parades but the main focus was to be found at the grave sites of the soldiers who had been killed in those terrible battles. Family, friends, and sometimes even sympathetic strangers would bring flowers to the cemeteries. Some even carried food for picnics and held solemn vigils. These were days of remembrance and honor that went by different names and occurred in different times and places.
Three years after the conclusion of the Civil War an organization of Union soldiers, the Grand Army of the Republic, established Decoration Day to be held on May 30 to honor those who had died in the Civil War. It is believed that this date was chosen because it coincided with a season when there is always an abundance of flowers. After World War I President Woodrow Wilson declared that the day be forevermore known as Memorial Day and that it be a time of remembrance for all soldiers who have died in the service of our country. It was not until the nineteen sixties that Memorial Day was set to occur on the last Monday of May to create a three day weekend associated with the national holiday.
Over a million members of the military have died while engaged in active duty. It is a staggering number and yet the vast majority of Americans today have little or no experience with losing a loved one or a friend in a war. Talk with individuals in their sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties, however, and there will be more and more eyewitness stories of young soldiers lost in World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the War in Vietnam. While those conflicts seem to be almost ancient history now, for those who saw the blood being spilled, the memories are as vivid as the actual events.
I have watched my father-in-law cry when reluctantly relating stories of fallen comrades in the Korean War. I have friends who speak of relatives who came back home dramatically changed from the War in Vietnam. They tell of husbands and fathers who still have nightmares because of what they saw. My mother’s eyes used to fill with tears as she told of school chums who never returned from battlefields across Europe and the Pacific. I have run my fingers across the names of school buddies whose bravery is forever proclaimed on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. My great grandfather did not die in the Civil War but he was charged with burying the dead after the Battle of Shiloh and official documents tell of the horrific nature of his duties.
Today our armies are staffed with volunteers many of whom continue to die in faraway places for a cause that we all too often don’t really understand. These young men and women are our first line of defense in an uncertain and often frightening world. Somehow they find the courage to carry out missions that most of us would be too frightened to do. When they die their families and friends suffer great loss. Many times those of us busy with our own lives are all too unaware of the great sacrifices that they have made.
War is hell and always has been. It would be so wonderful if we humans somehow managed to resolve our differences in peaceful diplomatic ways. For whatever reason, even our best efforts to avoid conflict are challenged again and again. We may want to isolate ourselves from the necessity to spill blood but history has shown us that we are sometimes given no other choice than to defend ourselves and lose our human treasure in the process.
I used to naively believe that one day mankind would evolve to a point at which the killing would forever stop. A lifetime of observing human nature has convinced me that there will always be some form of evil in the world and that sometimes we have to cut off the head of the serpent to save the innocent. Thank God for those with the courage and the willingness to do what must be done, even understanding that their efforts may result in death.
We must never forget the brave souls who gave their lives so that we might retain our freedoms. We may not know their names or be related to them in any significant way but we have benefited from their acts of courage nonetheless. There is no greater love than a man or woman laying down his/her life for another. It is incumbent on us to spend some time today reflecting on such sacrifices.
If you have children don’t fail to talk with them about why we have this holiday. Far too many of our youth are sadly ignorant of the real reason for our celebrations. It is up to us to teach them to remember and honor those who gave so much in the long arc of history. Simple gestures can be powerful reminders. Our children understand symbols and they like to hear stories.
My son-in-law and my grandchildren awoke early this morning to place American flags throughout their neighborhood. It is a ritual that they have repeated for many years now. I am proud of them for doing this in memory of our fallen heroes. It displays a special reverence that we as a nation are sometimes in jeopardy of losing. We must not equate respect for the dead with unbridled nationalism. It is the duty of present and future generations to never forget the true cost of war. Every life that is lost represents dreams that will never come true. If we honor those who gave everything, they will not have died in vain.
I have read that in our nation’s capitol the flag is raised on this day in the early morning and then lowered to half staff to remember all of the soldiers who have died for this country. At noon the flag is raised again to represent the glory of our nation that has resulted from their courageous deeds. I encourage you to both remember and celebrate. Go forth and enjoy the fruits of the sacrifices made for all of us.