Whether they died in America’s service, or that of the Confederacy, in those open fields and little mountains around Gettysburg, or in the country’s heroic World War I battle near the Marne River in a place of gore and glory called Belleau Wood, this day is for them. And for all the others who died in military service.
Oh, Memorial Day was a while in taking shape. Sometimes the story goes that the Confederacy started the custom shortly after the Civil War for recognizing its fallen, but the Union veterans of that war established in 1868 a day to mark graves with flowers. Finally, through the years, Memorial Day was more simply and eloquently defined as a day to honor all those who died in service of their country.
Whatever the day’s history, it is important that it exists. For although it’s fine to fly the flag, to salute the troops passing by us in parades, to study the history of strategy in war, this is the day for honoring and remembering the people who made what’s called the “ultimate sacrifice” in the cause. Let us not forget that war is death. Neatly arranged tombstones around the world tell us that, many of them marking the final rest of Americans whose families chose to let them be, in peace, in the country where they fell.
Yes, Memorial Day is predictable, and that’s fine. The president or the vice president will lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Washington, and a similar ceremony will take place in capital cities around the country. “ Taps” will be played. Heads will be bowed.
And, yes, we’ll hope that all this day, families who lost someone in wars, all those too many, horrible wars, will be pulling from the old chests and the closets those mementos they have left, to hold them, to talk about them, to connect in some tangible way with relatives they never even knew, except by family stories. And in many an American attic, there is an old uniform, in a box full of mothballs, worn overseas in the World Wars, long ago.
But even if all those things are long gone, this remains a day not just for a visit to cemeteries or for parades or for flower-planting ceremonies, but for somber remembrance. That’s something for which we seem to have less and less time, but something that is most important for those descended from veterans and for the younger ones who will be descended from us. Let us hope these youngsters will learn a little history today, will find an understanding of what it means to serve one’s country, will come to comprehend that, yes, that service can cost someone his or her life. It’s a hard lesson. But it is the lesson of this day.
So let us wave the flag. But let us light some candles and say some prayers, too. “God Bless America”? Of course. But just as important: God bless the men and women who died too young so that their country might survive.