My mother always used the original name of this holiday, Decoration Day, rather than it’s more modern one. She was a stickler for tradition.
She taught that for those who have served their country and have given their lives for that sacred privilege, there truly is no greater honor than to remember them through appropriate rituals of the day: Flags, flowers, red-white-and-blue bunting, ceremonies, and words were all integral parts of decorating the graves, and remembering the struggle, of service people in preserving American liberties and values. My father’s Jewish War Veterans post always sold Memorial Day poppies to remind us to honor those who died in defense of this country, honoring their struggle.
Decoration Day arose almost spontaneously during and/or after the Civil War; historians cannot easily pinpoint its exact date of origin. That is of no consequence, of course. The great hue and cry of the era was to heal the nation, and mourning the more-than-600,000 Civil War dead was one of the early pathways through the nation’s grief
Just as we learn in the book of Ecclesiastes, however, “there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9), and modern-day struggles continue whose soldiers we must also mourn.
I think about our national experience in Vietnam. So many Americans wanted us to win that Cold War struggle against Communism. So many Americans warned us to leave that seemingly pointless proxy confrontation. And we never found national consensus, until we had experienced a great loss of values and lives on both sides. And in the midst of that era’s angst, many forgot about, neglected, and actively shunned our veteran soldiers and their needs.
The photo above is an image of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, DC. If you have not been there, you should place it on your agenda for your next trip to our nation's capital. It is a dramatic expression of our nation's desire never to forget those who died for our nation.
And if there is one lesson that we, as Americans, seem to have finally understood from our foray into Vietnam, it is that we have taken a different and better approach to the service men and women who return from our conflicts. They are on our mind, and in our hearts. And the sacrifices they make – even when many have questioned the overall goal of our nation’s presence there – must be honored and appreciated, even in these days of shrinking dollars for veterans and their needs, and even when many Americans questions the overall purpose of our country’s mission.
Our fighting men and women act on orders by superiors – and ultimately a civilian superior, the President – whom we can petition when we disagree with our nation’s military or other actions. And we must, at the same time, care for our soldiers, active and retired, even when we have disagreed with the purpose of their actions.
If there is an overriding message on this Memorial Day, it is to continue to respect and support those fighters who have placed their lives on the line for our nation’s ideals and values. We do this in the memory of all those who have fallen for this nation.
On this Memorial Day, find a veteran, or an active service member, and let them know how much we truly appreciate their sacrifices.