Memorial Day

Memorial Day


Memorial Day is behind us, now, but it lingers in my thoughts.  Reviewing some of the holiday’s history, I’m reminded that Memorial Day was once known as Decoration Day, and at first was a specified day to decorate the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers with flowers.

To me, this is an odd thing.  The Civil War was not a war defending the country from foreign invaders, it was a war where Americans fought Americans, a family argument that got out of hand.    How far out of hand?  Well, when the smoke cleared after the long and bloody conflict, the death toll of military participants was over 655,000.  That’s more American military deaths than in any other American war.  I have a dozen or so bullets gathered from Civil War battlefields.  It’s hauntingly eerie to realize, every one of them was fired with the intention to kill somebody who, for all the fighting soldier knew, could be his third cousin on his mother’s side twice removed.  I have heard stories about blood-brothers on opposing sides meeting on battlefields during ceasefires to reminisce about home and family.  I don’t know, but I suppose it could have happened.


At any rate, harsh resentments softened after the Civil War.  The country was injured and hurting, but it was still the United States of America.  At a “grass roots” level, people remembered the fallen.  Eventually, May 30th was set aside as Decoration Day to honor the Civil War combatants on both sides who had died in service to their cause.  At some point, the recognitions were extended to include all fallen Americans in every war, to be observed yearly on May 30th.  From the first mortally wounded Revolutionary War patriot to the latest soldier fatality in the numerous conflicts scorching the world today, Memorial Day was instituted as a time to reflect upon the brave men and women who died defending our freedoms.

Things changed, however.  Decoration Day became Memorial Day, and its observance was moved to the last Monday in May.  As a veteran of the Vietnam War explained to me, “Somebody wanted a three-day weekend, that’s all.  For some people, Memorial Day isn’t about remembering those who died fighting for the Country; it’s just a day off work, an excuse to party, eat burnt hotdogs, drink beer, and go to the Memorial Day sale at [a major chain retailer].  I had too many friends shipped home from Vietnam in government coffins.  It’s a solemn time, for me.”

I could not disagree.  A bumper-sticker on the man’s truck read, “If you’re reading this, thank a teacher.  If you’re reading it in English, thank a veteran.”

But it’s difficult for those of us who have never been in service to fully understand.  Sure, we can count the 4,000+ Americans who died in the Iraq War; and the 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam; the 36,500 who died in Korea; World War II’s 405,600 and World War I’s 116,500—all the way back to the Revolutionary War’s 25,000 patriots who died fighting for Independence.  It’s kind of hard to visualize them, though.  We only have statistical numbers, and there’s not really any “flesh and blood” imagery in them to move us.

Besides, Memorial Day is behind us.  Father’s Day is coming up, and the 4th of July, which is enough to make us forget about Memorial Day till next May—isn’t it?

Something along these lines was said innocently enough in a small group at a Memorial Day event.  An older couple was there, and the wife disagreed with the assessment.  “I can’t forget,” she said, tears filling her eyes.  “Our son died in combat in Iraq.  For us, every day is Memorial Day.

There, friends, is our “flesh and blood” element hidden in all the statistics.

You know, I think Memorial Day is mostly about love—love for Country, love for freedom, love for moral virtues, love for family and friends—these are the qualities we imagine we possess and perhaps even have a monopoly upon.  To protect these American values is why our armed forces were created!—

Really, now, we are not so naïve.  But may we always honor the men and women who gave their lives in service to our Country.  And I pray that we be willing to do the same.

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Craig Hall
Publisher, writer, photographer and teacher.