On this Memorial Day hundreds of thousands of graves in the national cemeteries of the United States will be adorned with small flags placed by good citizens who believe that is the least they and their country can do for the men and women who perished in service. They are right.
But many Americans, connected to Memorial Day by the deaths of loved ones in battles dating to the days of the Civil War and on through the battles in Iraq and Afghanistan, will do much more.
Yes, they’ll gather in darkened dens and look at photographs and slides and perhaps movies of those to whom they bear resemblance. They’ll comb through the generations in their scrapbooks, with the pasted-in letters and the faded pictures. Someone will dig out a box of medals.
These things will bring smiles to some, to those too young to have known the kinfolk who died in service. But for others, particularly for those in the post-World War generations, the calling up of those photographs and those memories will bring tears still. For them, the sacrifice is fresh.
Young men, mostly, but young women, too, have gone to war from cotton fields and corporations. When the nation prepared for World Wars in the days of the draft, kids, literally kids, left home for the first time and fought for their country thousand of miles from home. During the Vietnam years, youngsters nervously awaited their “lottery numbers” during a time when the nation was divided over whether there should be such a war at all. And in the Civil War, when hundreds of thousands perished, Americans died fighting each other. All who died in service of their country gave, as Lincoln said at Gettysburg, “the last full measure of devotion.”
The Americans we mourn today of all days fell in places that took the monikers of historic legend: Belleau Wood, Iwo Jima, Normandy, Saigon, Korea, the Gulf War, Afghanistan. Their commanders need but a single name in the books. Eisenhower, Patton, Pershing, Lee, Grant, MacArthur.
And those lives lost were equally precious to all families, whether they lived in crowded neighborhoods in New York City or in sprawling mansions on a golf course. The men and women who die in service might be enlistees trying to put aside some benefits for college, or they might be reservists with prosperous careers, finishing off their obligations.
But when duty calls, hazard can follow.
This Memorial Day is not a day like Veterans Day, when we honor all those who served. No, Memorial Day is specifically for those who died. For those who made what we call the ultimate sacrifice.
And so as we stand in cemeteries, we’d do well to bow our heads and hold our flags and remember, too, that so many other people were affected by the sacrifices of those who died in service to the United States.
There were, and are, those Gold Star mothers, many of whom rarely smiled again. There were the brides and grooms to be, their plans all gone, their lives changed. There were the children who never saw parents again, and children planned and never born. Family businesses and farms that never got passed on. Then there were friends who would come home from the battlefields and wonder, for the rest of their lives, why they were spared and their friends were not.
Yes, we can say Memorial Day is about honoring and remembering the dead. But it’s really about all American families. In the course of the nation’s modern history, or that history dating from the Civil War, can it be possible that there is any family not in some way touched, in some way changed, by the death of someone in war?
Make no mistake. Even if service to country has not taken someone from you in recent generations, the connection to this day is somewhere in your family legacy.
And so the flags come out, and the memories do, too. And they should. Compared with what these men and women did for us, it is the least we can do. The very least.