A few thoughts on Memorial Day:
• This may be the holiday most often confused with something else.
Some think it’s about veterans. By definition, though, it’s about the Americans who went to war but didn’t survive to become veterans. Veterans have their own well-deserved day, in November.
Some think it’s an occasion for honoring all the dead, especially dead loved ones, regardless of whether they were killed in action. But when Memorial Day is about everyone, it’s really about no one in particular.
If the original purpose of the holiday is watered down with other meanings, there will be no day truly dedicated to those who have fallen in the nation’s defense. If any Americans deserve an occasion all to themselves, they do.
• Overwhelmingly, war claims the young. The vast majority of casualties are men in their twenties or late teens. Typical are the three Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers who’ve been killed in Afghanistan since May 18. They were 23, 25 and 28 years old.
Look at veterans – the living – and you’ll see what the dead would have been had they come home: vigorous men and women, for the most part, pursuing educations or settled into jobs. Probably married, often rearing and enjoying children; maybe playing softball and eating hot dogs on the Fourth of July; watching the World Series; reminiscing with friends, slowly growing old.
Picture the fallen living out their lives for another 40, 50 or 60 years. That’s what they gave: everything.
• Compared to the generations that witnessed the draft and Vietnam, the world wars and the Civil War, fewer Americans today have any social connection to the military. Few have personally known someone killed in battle, or even a family of someone killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
That personal distance can turn the dead into mere abstractions, the way anonymous patriots killed in the Revolution have become abstractions. The sacrifice becomes unfelt. Forty years ago, when the woman next door might be a gold star mother, there was nothing abstract about the price paid by the fallen and those who loved them.
• It is hard to memorialize the dead without understanding what they died for. Their survivors need no tutoring, but Americans in general are historical amnesiacs who couldn’t tell Tora Bora from Bora Bora. How can we genuinely honor a GI who died on Pork Chop Hill, for example, without knowing anything about the battles fought there, the Korean War itself, and the origins of today’s vibrant and democratic South Korea?
Memorial Day is about memory. A country that can’t remember its past can hardly do justice to those who died in its service.