Memorial Day has come to represent a unified national commemoration of all those in uniform who sacrificed their lives for their country. Such unity of purpose is something we could use more of these days.
The holiday didn’t begin as a national day of remembrance for all of the nation’s war dead. It originally commemorated those who had fallen during the Civil War, and customs varied from state to state, often depending on whether the state had been part of the Union or Confederacy.
But at the end of the war, women’s groups and community groups around the nation started decorating the graves of Confederate and Union soldiers alike. And eventually, after World War I, the remembrance was expanded to include military dead from all U.S. wars.
The last Monday in May was officially declared as Memorial Day in 1971.
On a less serious note, Memorial Day also is the unofficial but widely recognized beginning of summer and all that summer has to offer – picnics, baseball games, trips to the beach, barbecue, shorts and sunburns. For most of us, Memorial Day is, first and foremost, a three-day weekend and an opportunity to take advantage of the special sales.
Many of us would prefer to put thoughts of war and carnage behind us. Only recently is America’s longest war – the decade-long war in Afghanistan – coming to an end, with troops scheduled to return home soon.
But there still is so much that reminds us of war and the sacrifice it entails – the service men and women scarred in mind and body, those who can’t get adequate medical service from the Veterans Administration, those still in harm’s way. And we think not only of those who lost their lives on the battlefield but also those who became casualties to the unendurable memories of war.
And still among us but fewer every day are the veterans of World War II. They remind us of the thousands of compatriots who gave their lives to stop the spread of fascism more than 70 years ago.
And we think of those who were lost in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and the other places around the world where they were called to serve.
So, on this Memorial Day, let us pause at least a moment from our picnics and barbecues, from our trips to the mall, from our many other distractions, and pay homage to those who have fallen. Let us reflect at least a moment not only on those who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan but also on the thousands of others whose lives were cut short by war throughout our often bloody history.
Whatever the day, let us always be grateful for their sacrifice.
And while we acknowledge those who died to keep us free, let us also remember the communal spirit and the common ties that bind us as Americans, and celebrate them as a blessing we can pass on to our children and generations to come.