Every year I get a little misty around this time, thinking about all those Memorial Days past when I celebrated with family members who are no longer with me. Of course, despite these loved ones and friends passing on, they are never really gone. The essence of their lives hangs all about me, and when going to see our local Memorial Day parade, I feel them with every beat of my heart as the bands march and pound drums, fire trucks glisten in the sunshine, and old soldiers go by refusing to fade away.
Despite all the pomp and the circumstance of having the holiday, I find that each year more people don’t realize why we celebrate. Never mind their not knowing the difference between Decoration Day (first celebrated May 30, 1868) and Memorial Day, as it became an official national holiday in 1971 to be celebrated on the last Monday in May.
Going way back to ancient Greece there was a notion of honoring those who died in battle, and a practice began of decorating the graves of those soldiers lost. In the United States the idea gained momentum after the Civil War, and thus Decoration Day came to be practiced even though it was not an official holiday.
Hawaiian Senator Daniel Inoyue (a World War II veteran) proposed a resolution in Congress to return Memorial Day to May 30 in 1987 (and every year after that until his death in 2012). He noted, ”Instead of using Memorial Day as a time to honor and reflect on the sacrifices made by Americans in combat, many Americans use the day as a celebration of the beginning of summer.” Sadly, this is truer than ever now, and it’s also an ideal opportunity to run “Memorial” sales across the country. No doubt many more people are out shopping, having a barbecue, or visiting a local beach than watching parades and honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
Despite all these other distractions, Memorial Day is still a necessary and compelling holiday to be celebrated with vigor, one which should be void of politics though many will take advantage of it as an opportunity to advance an agenda. The main purpose of Memorial Day rises above partisan trappings – we are honoring these brave men and women not because they were Democrats, Republicans, or Libertarians, but for their service to this country in the Armed Forces.
As the years pass those lost in war are forgotten by the living, mostly because their friends and loved ones have also passed on. They are faceless names found on monuments in town squares, honored for their ultimate sacrifice in wars fought too long ago for many to remember. The millions of dead – from Valley Forge to Gettysburg to San Juan Hill to the Argonne to Omaha Beach to Bloody Ridge (Korea) to the Tet Offensive (Vietnam), and in battles in those wars more fresh in our collective memories (the First Gulf War and then Iraq and Afghanistan) – are silent now in their resting places; therefore, we are called to honor them for their service despite how we feel about presidents and representatives that we may blame for initiating conflicts.
Many of our fathers didn’t want to join the Armed Forces during a war, nor did our grandfathers before them. Most of our grandfathers, fathers, brothers, cousins, and friends didn’t want to be dropped into war zones; however, there are those brave individuals who didn’t wait to be drafted and volunteered before they got the call. Millions more got their draft notices, reported for duty, and served honorably. Many of them didn’t come home, and Memorial Day is about noting that sacrifice while letting the partisan crap go, at least for one day a year.
Over the years I got to speak to many veterans through my father’s involvement in the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post. Dad served in World War II and many of his friends at the VFW had as well. I also got to talk to World War I vets (including my grandfather), as well as those from the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Listening to their stories was fascinating, but I think the way they told them was as compelling as the tales themselves.
None of these men ever spoke about politics – ever! No one blamed Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, or Richard Nixon for having to go overseas. They spoke of the horrors they saw, the courage of their buddies, those they lost, and how lucky they were to come home to America. There is – I can only imagine – no politics in the foxhole as bombs are going off all around you; there is only the thought of making it back alive.
So when I watch the parade today I will not be wondering about the politics of those who are marching. When the sea of American flags will wave against the blue sky, they are the emblems of all Americans – whatever their politics, their race, their religion, and gender. I will see, as I do every year, the firefighters and police who fight different kinds of wars at home; I will see the school bands with their brass instruments shining in the sun, the Boy and Girl Scouts, the schools and sports teams with their banners, and the service members in their old uniforms either walking or sitting in vintage cars, waving to an appreciative crowd that cheers them all on.
It’s about bringing everyone together and nothing about tearing anyone apart, about communities all across the nation finding something bigger than them to honor because by doing so we show we are better than those who bicker and argue and try to divide. Mostly, it is a day for all those who served their country and especially for those who never came home. That is what Memorial Day is all about and should be forevermore, even after are no more wars to be fought, no more soldiers lost, and peace is no longer a fantasy.
Photo credits: CNN