Memorial Day has always been a time for reflection. Memorial Day 2020 is no exception. The day has a deep, deep tradition. On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan issued a proclamation calling for “Decoration Day” to be observed annually and nationwide; he was commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of and for Union Civil War veterans founded in Decatur, Illinois. It is a day to decorate the graves of those who died in wartime.
But Memorial Day always brings another question. Memorial Day originally honored military personnel who died in the Civil War (1861-1865). The holiday now honors those who died in any war while serving with the United States. It is also called Decoration Day. Is Memorial Day just for those who died in the war? Of course not. As I said, it is a time for reflection, a time to remember those who have given everything to make things better for those who follow.
A personal Decoration Day memory
My first memories of Decoration are of a small wind-blow cemetery in a western Wyoming mining town. It was not just for veterans although there was the military gun salute. It was the first I ever saw. Decoration Day was for everyone who had gone on ahead. Soldiers. Sailors. Airmen. Miners. Ranchers. Shop keepers. Decoration Dayhonored them all. My family made the pilgrimage every year.
This year, on Memorial Day 2020, in the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic our circumstances are vastly different. Historically, as a country, we try to remember those who died in wartime to protect our freedom. We mark the historic days and the anniversaries. Normally, we fly the flag, we hold parades, we visit the cemeteries, we report on the observances through TV and print. This year, we will observe social distancing.
But, for those who were not there, whose lives are young, the wars are ancient history. The Revolution, the War Between the States, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, even the first Gulf War today are often just mere words in history books, emotionally incomprehensible to a new generation after the recent Middle East conflicts have fallen off the front pages and 24-hour cable news cycle.
Too many distractions
Sometimes, however, there are just too many distractions. We would rather spend our time with picnics and outings on the first three-day holiday of the year. Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer. We would rather the days were not spoiled by reminders of those who died. Reminders of the soldiers, sailors, marines, and fliers who were killed serving their nation make us uncomfortable. We do not want to see the row upon row of gleaming white grave markers in the cemeteries that have taken the place of battlefields from coast to coast and locations worldwide. Stories of the boys and girls who went away, never to return make us uncomfortable, as well.
We must remember…
This Monday, we must remember the 4,400 rebels who died in the American Revolution.
We must remember the 2,200 who died in the War of 1812.
Remember, we must, 215,000 Americans — Union and Confederate forces — who died on the battlefields of the Civil War, giving rise to this holiday once called Decoration Day.
The 53,500 Americans killed in World War I.
The 292,000 killed in World War II.
The 33,667 in Korea.
The 47,393 in Vietnam.
The 148 in the first Gulf War.
The 4,486 in the Iraq War.
Or the 2,322 killed as part of the continuing Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
And so, we try to explain to those who they have not been there why, they too, must remember.
We all hope the wars are not repeated
Yes, we hope that these young people will never know battle, but we want them to understand. We want to tell them what it is like, as our great-grandfathers told us about World War I, our grandfathers about World War II and Korea, our fathers about Vietnam and the Gulf and Iraq.
We try to show them, honoring those who died with memorials, from statues of generals on horseback to the solemn Vietnam Wall, the grim yet inspiring Korean War Memorial and the epic World War II Memorial that was dedicated just a few years ago on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
But memorials can be harsh and cold, made of bronze and stone. They tell us little of the people they honor.
So we also speak of the tears that well in our eyes as a finger traces the outline of another name on the Vietnam Wall.
So we speak of the profound sadness we feel as we walk among the rows of small marble headstones that mark the resting places of so many who gave so much in the wars that mark more than 200 years of a nation’s experiment in freedom.
The Vietnam Wall
Every name engraved on the Vietnam Wall, every white marker in the graveyard could be that of friend or family member. Each marks the death of someone very much like us, men and women who lived lives very much like ours, who played baseball and hopscotch on sunny days, who loved picnics and days at the lake, who dreamed of careers and love in the immortal days of youth, and who died in battles far away because their country said it needed them.
No matter how difficult it might seem, we must not forget. For their sacrifice, we owe them at least that much
Memorial Day 2020
And now, in the depths of the current pandemic, we must remember the 96,329 who have died in the United States as well. Does it stop there? What about the 675,000 Americans who died in the Spanish Flu pandemic in the last century.
Memorial Day 2020. We must remember.