Friday, June 02, 2006

For a while, Memorial Day was in vogue again. It was all the rage to be patriotic, and along with booming sales for American flags, those who celebrate Memorial Day every single year suddenly had lots of company. But that passed fairly quickly (we Americans are a resilient species) and the last couple of years, the crowd for Memorial Day park services has been dwindling again.
That’s a shame. Memorial Day is a uniquely American holiday, and Americans ought to respect its meaning and its history.
It’s only right that Memorial Day got its start in the aftermath of the Civil War, a conflict that captured all the contradictions and difficulties of war.
It was a war fought for complicated reasons. Up North, we like to believe that it was fought because we were intent on making Southerners stop their naughty slaveholding ways, but that’s not entirely true. The causes of the war were deep-rooted and complex, and sometimes it seems as if the war was fought mainly because nobody could figure out how to avoid it.
Nor did the public greet it cheerfully. Some did look forward to glorious battle and honor. But when Lincoln instituted the draft, there were protests. And not nice sit-down-and-sing-folk-song protests, but riots in which chunks of cities were burned and people were killed.
Once the politicians and people failed to prevent the war, the generals botched the fighting. Even a quick reading about the war leaves you boggled at how many soldiers died because they were led by men who just weren’t up to the task.
The fight was long and hard and bloody, between people who both believed they fought for the ideals laid down in 1776.
And when it was all done, next came the hardest lesson of all, the one that nations are so good at forgetting—that botching the peace after the war is over can lose much of what you fought for in the first place.
Nobody knows when or where Decoration Day started (at least two dozen places claim the distinction), but by 1868 General John Logan, a veteran and rising politician, was ready to make it official as a day to look after the gravesites of the fallen soldiers of the war.
The day was not recognized in the South for decades, where each state set aside its own day for honoring the dead. After World War I (another battlefield monument to the folly of misguided leaders and political warfare), Decoration Day became Memorial Day, and its focus changed to honor the fallen soldiers of all wars. At that point, the Southern states recognized the May 30 holiday.
When Memorial Day rolls around, it’s easy to miss the point.
For instance, it is not a day to celebrate how great war is. History is pretty consistent on one point about war—the only people who rush into it with joy and enthusiasm are people who have never fought in one. War demands enormous sacrifices of the soldiers who fight, as well as their families and friends and neighbors. The Civil War and its nasty aftermath destroyed the lives of millions of Americans and laid ugly wounds across the entire country, wounds so deep that we still deal with the scars today.
Nor is it a day to crow about having God On Our Side. In the Civil War, both sides were pretty sure that they had the endorsement of The Big Guy; it seems likely that at least one side was wrong.
But it is also not a day to point out that sometimes war is unjust and that occasionally politicians (and the people that support them) make choices that some folks really really REALLY disagree with. The right and wrong of these things is often hard to see; during the Civil War, hardly anyone in the country could make it out through the blood and smoke. This is not the day to have that argument.
None of that is the point. The point is this—in the midst of difficult times, these men and women were willing to make a total sacrifice for their fellow citizens and those who were to come after them. In other words, for us.
Not many of us risk for our lives for what we believe. These people did. Not many of us put our country ahead of everything else we love. These people did.
It’s a small thing for those of who are still here, still breathing, to take a moment Monday to remember those who have died in the service of our country. The causes and effects of war are complicated, but what those individuals did is pretty simple. They deserve a minute of our thought.

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