Give Memorial Day some serious thought

Why, some people ask, does the United States have two annual holidays for recalling war?

The simple answer, as many know, is that Memorial Day, today, is for the military dead while Veterans Day, on Nov. 11, is for living veterans. But for some people – our Canadian neighbors, for example – that may not satisfy their curiosity. Why does the U.S. need separate holidays for the dead and living? Canada has just one – Remembrance Day, celebrated on Nov. 11 to mark the armistice that ended World War I (which was hoped to be “the war to end all wars”).

To answer that question, one has to get into the Civil War, which Memorial Day was specifically created to remember.

Canada hasn’t had a conflict that cataclysmic. Death estimates vary, but it’s safe to say that hundreds of thousands of Union and Confederate troops lost their lives. In one three-day battle (in Gettysburg, Pa., on July 1-3, 1863), more American soldiers died than in all this nation’s armed conflicts since the Vietnam War combined.

For a moment, stop thinking like a modern person and imagine a time closer to the origin of this holiday, when the memory of so much bloodshed on home soil – Americans killing each other wholesale – was more recent and fearsome.

Even a tragedy as horrible as the Civil War has faded from Americans’ memory over the 148 years since it ended. People forget things unless they actively remind themselves, so it is important to have an annual holiday to commemorate the death toll of war, and the Civil War in particular. Perhaps our collective memory would have faded more if we didn’t.

Yet still, this is one holiday whose meaning Americans tend to be fuzzy on. That’s partly because, in 1971, the federal government changed it from May 30 to the last Monday in May to guarantee a long weekend. If that hadn’t been done, would as many people notice Memorial Day? On the other hand, it’s common knowledge that most Americans think of this more as a three-day cookout weekend than as a time to ponder the price of warfare.

Another reason for our national vagueness is that Memorial Day’s meaning has deliberately been blurred over time. What was once a commemoration of Union dead became extended to all soldiers killed in the Civil War – and then, after World War I, extended to all U.S. soldiers killed in all wars.

This holiday is too slippery for some to grasp. Consequently, people tend to loosen it even more, telling each other it is a day to remember all those who have died – “especially” rather than “only” in war.

That’s not necessarily wrong. We Americans are great at finding personal meanings in broader frameworks. Nevertheless, we need more occasion to think and converse together about the reality of war.

We are currently a nation at war, but we haven’t acted like one in many decades. Every once in a while, a bit of that truth hits home – like this past week when Spc. Dane DeGrace, a Saranac Lake High School graduate whose parents now live in Tupper Lake, was hurt by a bomb in Afghanistan.

He’s a explosive ordnance disposal technician, one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. He chose that. It begs the question of each of us: What kinds of risks are we willing to undertake, and for what reasons?

We need Memorial Day’s message year-round. It asks just one thing of us: Remember. Let’s all make an extra effort to do that today and all summer – to resist the temptation to forget that our professional soldiers are at war. It doesn’t matter what our feelings or politics about war are; this can be unifying rather than polarizing.

As we enjoy the outdoors, family time, hanging out with friends or any of the other comforts of a safe, free home front, let’s think today of those in war zones, both soldiers and civilians. Then let those thoughts lead to concern, and then, perhaps, to some kind of constructive action.