Memorial Day

Back in April while touring Australia, I posted an article that introduced most Americans to ANZAC day.  In my attempt to explain the day, I likened it to a mixture of Memorial Day and Veterans Day.  As May now draws to an end, it seemed appropriate to write a post about our “day of remembrance”.  Unfortunately, it would seem the average American is a bit unclear as to the purpose and history of this day, so for the benefit of all, I offer the following:

The origins of Memorial Day date back to the Civil War, but it wasn’t until General John Logan, National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (similar to the current day Chairman of the Joint Chiefs) gave the order on May 5th 1869, that May 30th be set aside as Memorial Day.  His words, though laced with reflections of the time, hold true to this day:

General Order No.11

We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose among other things, “of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.” What can aid more to assure this result than cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.

“If other eyes grow dull, other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain to us.

“Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.”

Given the fresh wounds of the Civil War, many Southern states chose to honor their fallen sons on a separate day, and it wasn’t until after the First World War that the day was actively recognized by all states.

Since then, the true meaning and purpose of the day has been diluted, polluted and all but forgotten save for the holiday and retail minded.  In 1971, congress moved the observance of Memorial Day to the last Monday of May, thus giving people a three day weekend, and unofficially marking the beginning of summer complete with outings to the lake and countless BBQ opportunities.  Later, the day was further expanded to include fire fighters, police officers and even those who died on September 11th, 2001.

Fenton, MO, Heroes Memorial

Understand that I have dear friends who are fire fighters and police officers and I believe their service to our community, and their sacrifice, is something to be remembered.  I also realize that our nation is filled with brave men and women who deserve remembrance for their part in our history.

Fenton Memorial to The Fallen Soldier

But Memorial Day was specifically conceived to honor war dead; soldiers, sailors, airman, Marines, etc.  Later it was expanded to honor all dead veterans, whether they died in combat or during peace.  It was not a day to honor all dead, or all heroes.

160,000+ Graves
Jefferson Barracks Veterans’ Cemetery, Memorial Day, 2012

Nor was it a day of celebration–I find it rather incredulously to hear people say “Happy Memorial Day”–it was a day to reflect, remember and commemorate the spirit and dedication of our service people; a day to look around at the rows of perfectly placed graves in a national cemetery and actually see the price of freedom.

Perhaps it is because May 30th holds no specific meaning for us (unlike ANZAC Day April 25th) that we find it easy to dismiss.  Perhaps General Logan should have chosen April 12th, the official end of the Civil War, but I suspect that would have been a divisive date, rather than one of reconciliation.

Once upon a time we marked the end of the most horrific war ever recorded in human history with great joy and reverence.  Armistice Day was always on November 11thbecause the armistice to end WWI was signed on the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour; 11-11-11.  We never imagined that another global war would rage with such destruction.  After WWII, the name was changed to Veterans Day.  Unfortunately, that day too has been perverted to the closest Monday to allow for a three day weekend of shopping and frolic, though only for banks and federal employees.  Most corporations do not recognize Veterans Day as a holiday.

ANZAC Day is, for the Australians and the New Zealanders, a day to remember and honor all service people, living and dead.  The date is specific and significant, regardless of the day of the week on which it falls, businesses are closed, at least through the morning, and many are closed all day. Bands and honor guards spend weeks practicing and polishing, the local equivalent to Boy Scouts drill and rehearse, audio systems are tested and retested.  Nothing is left to chance.  Like the men and women they honor, they are ready.   And the parades last for 3-4 hours, allowing all who wish to march; active duty, all veterans and their surviving family.

We are a divers people with many cultures and heroes all deserving recognition.  But whether you love the military or not, it is our service people who ensure our freedoms.  Don’t they deserve a special, memorable day?  I believe we could combine the two, Memorial and Veterans Day; but what would be the date?  Here are a few options:

Pearl Harbor Day, December 7th

D-Day (invasion of Europe), June 6th

Victory in Europe (VE) Day, May 8th

Victory in Japan (VJ) Day, September 2nd

Those are simply a few of the significant dates related to WWII, the list could go on and on.  Personally, I think Armistice Day is the best choice.  While we have since fought many, many bloody wars and millions of our service people have been lost, it was on Armistice Day that we first marked a significant and poignant date in our history as a nation, with pride, sorrow, and hope.

When congress changed Memorial Day from May 30th, to the last Monday in May, 98 years had passed.  It’s unlikely that there were any survivors from the time of the Civil War to stage much of a protest.  But a lifespan of 100-plus years is well with-in the realm of possibilities given today’s medical achievements.  Someone who was 20 years old on September 11th, 2001 would be 120 in 2101.  Our wounds are still fresh from that horrible day, so we still remember with great reverence each and every one of the more than 3000 people murdered.  But we do it on September 11th.   If you are still alive in 2101; how will you feel if Congress changes observance of September 11th to the closest Monday and the day of remembrance becomes little more than another bank holiday?

I am a veteran, and for my own reasons, I have kept that fact a quiet part of my past.  I have never attended a Memorial or Veterans Day observance, until this year.  I have come to realize, that the vets don’t march to honor themselves, they march to honor their brethren.  They march to remember, they march to remind.  From now on, I will join them.  Join me.  Lest we forget.

Jefferson Barracks Veterans’ Cemetery, Memorial Day, 2012
Overlooking the Mississippi River, south of St. Louis

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