It didn't begin as a Holy Day, so 'holiday' is a misnomer. Memorial Day is not "Barbecue Day", it's not "First Long Weekend Day", and it's not "Finally Warm Enough at the Beach Day". Decoration Day – now called Memorial Day – is dedicated to death. After the unCivil War, when Americans killed each other, it was a time when military graves were decorated by survivors – often cousins and friends who wore different colored uniforms, or who were separated by a few miles. It was a day to reflect on the horrors of war. General John Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic made it an order in 1868, and it became a practice at Arlington National Cemetery. Congress included it in the National Holiday Act of 1971, so in that sense it's a "holiday" after all.
This time carved out by Congress for your recreation, barbecue, ball games, and trip to the mountains came at a price, and you're obliged to pay. You must remember. It is, after all, Memorial Day. "Memorial" means "serving to preserve remembrance". The purpose of this time away from your ordinary life is to force reflection upon the bill we paid to preserve the freedoms created by this remarkable experiment called the United States of America, and the human cost of extending our influence across the oceans to protect and defend others against aggression and despots. Some people forget what it's all about. Help them. That's what those red poppies are for – to help people remember. Moina Michael wrote:
We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never
Perhaps this weekend you can spend a little less time at the barbecue, the tailgate party, the beach, and do something that's a lot less fun and much more important, particularly if you have children with you. Can you visit a military cemetery? As you gaze upon an endless field of markers, contemplate a horrible, sobering, reality – and talk about it. You can have a profound effect upon the minds of the next generation. Nearly all those coffins hold America's best – our youth. The average age of a military casualty is about 20, so those young people still had three-fourths of their lives to live, and lost that opportunity on the battlefield. As you stand there, what lesson will you teach your children? After you walk away, what ideas will you take to the polls in future elections? What arguments will you make in letters to editors, on talk shows, in discussions with friends? Think about it, and think about this as well.
War is a terrible thing, but is probably not the worst thing. Wartime casualties are terrible, but there are other horrors. Political decisions that put our youth on the battlefield are often wrong, but there are decisions and indecisions that kill more. Anyone with a conscience who properly considers Memorial Day must shudder, because it is indeed a memorial to a horrible price – a million dead young Americans – paid for political decisions since the Civil War. But enough of those decisions were the right ones to have directly shaped Asia and Europe and strongly influenced the rest of the world, overcoming the most vile of modern dictators, and most aggressive of evil empires. Had those decisions not been made, had those sacrifices been withheld, had we as a nation not chosen to proactively defend freedom worldwide, we would not be the nation we are and the world would be something other than it is. Would it be better? Worse? Would more or less Americans be alive today? Think carefully – don't answer too quickly...
No one hates war more than the poor bastards who have to go out and fight. As many of my friends know, I did that for decades as a flyer in the Marines. Though many of my experiences were unpleasant, I have the advantages of a military career and an education in history, and might be better equipped than some to form an answer to my own questions. In my view there is a good argument that if the United States had isolated itself from the last century of wars, dictators, imperialism, and aggression in Asia, Europe, Latin America, Africa, Central America, and the Middle East, we would not be the nation we are today, and the world would be a grim and hateful place. And some of those empires and dictators, unfettered, might have grown so powerful that an isolated North America, the richest land on earth, would eventually have been irresistible.
Other nations around the world have days like our Memorial Day, on which they remember lives lost in battles – usually against invaders. Their border cities have erected markers of battles lost as their armies fell back before attacking armies. The bloody fighting was waged on their soil, amidst their civilians, destroying their cities. In many cases, the tide did not turn until the army of the United States arrived and eventually prevailed – with our youth making the sacrifices that we recognize here, this Memorial Day Weekend. Freedom must be defended, the decisions are never easy, the cost is always high, the losses are never popular, but it's our good fortune that we conducted that defense "over there", on someone else's soil and not our own.
As you remember the suffering of American families who lost their loved ones, and the grim sacrifices of those who fell in battle, remember this: in the last 100 years nearly all of them died on foreign soil, helping our allies and defending our homeland and its values.
P.S. On Monday, I'll visit old friends at Rosecrans National Cemetery to reflect. And I know that but for a tiny gust of wind, a bit of glare from the sun, a whim, the leaf of a tree, luck, it would be me buried and my comrade standing there saluting.