Memorial Day comes and goes every year on the last Monday in May. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people thanking veterans on Memorial Day, confusing it with Veterans Day on which we thank veterans for their service. Today is not about thanking veterans. Today is about remembering the dead.
Out of the 10 public holidays established by federal law in the United States, Memorial Day stands out. Maybe it’s the fantastic weather that May brings in much of the United States. Maybe it’s the blessing of another day off right before summer. Memorial Day is often the first in a long procession of barbecues, pool parties, outdoor concerts, and joyful gatherings. But, Memorial Day carries a weight on which not many people choose to focus.
In its original form, Memorial Day was called “Decoration Day” because its observance was focused on decorating the graves of those who died in service to their country during the Civil War. The first Decoration Day was observed in 1868. On May 30 1868, after a speech by General James Garfield, 5,000 men and women decorated 20,000 graves at Arlington National Cemetery. I imagine the idea for Decoration Day was motivated in large part by the need to honor the over 600,000 men who died during the Civil War and, hopefully, to keep the atrocity from ever occurring again (icasualties.org/ oef/).
Juxtapose this history with how many of us spend Memorial Day now, 147 years later. Barbecues, picnics, trips to the beach, weekend getaways that will last that one extra night, traffic, food, beer. I could go on, but I think you get my point. We so often don’t think at all about why we observe Memorial Day. Instead, we take the extra day and enjoy our freedom; freedom that was secured for us by those who gave their lives that we might live in a safer world.
This Memorial Day seems especially poignant since this year is the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Vietnam War. Over the twenty years the United States was actively engaged in Vietnam, just over 58,000 Americans were fatal casualties of the war. The Vietnam War was divisive and complicated, but this in no way diminishes the sacrifices of thousands of men who went willingly to serve and die when called.
Like in Vietnam, the current military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven divisive and controversial. For over 10 years, service members have participated in a war that not many think about daily. Yet, the reality is that there are still thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, fighting and dying in service to their country. Since 2001, 2,357 U.S. service members lost their lives fighting in Afghanistan. On April 8, 2015, Spc. John M. Dawson was killed in Jalalabad, Afghanistan from wounds he sustained from small arms fire. Spc. Dawson was 22.
So, on this Memorial Day (and every Memorial Day after), we should make a concerted effort to remember those who died and to remind us that there are still those dying. An opportunity to show reverence for the fallen occurs at 3 p.m. local time in what is called the National Moment of Remembrance. At this time, Americans can “voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps’” (usmemorialday. org).
We still need Memorial Day. We need it to remember. And since history has a way of repeating itself, we will always need Memorial Day. Because if we forget the cost of war, how can we ever hope to change the future.