Memorial Day is the one day of the year when we are to recognize and reflect upon the price of the freedoms we all enjoy. It is a day of observance, of somber remembrance of those who died in service to our nation. There are countless parades, ceremonies and dedications, filled with reverence, pomp and circumstance. When the parades and official events are over, we celebrate. And that is how it should be.
For too many, Memorial Day is a day off school or work, a day of shopping once-a-year sales and no thought is given to why there are more flags flying than usual. If there is even an awareness of the abundance of flags and everything decorated red, white and blue, the fleeting thought is that this day has something to do with our military.
It is amazing, and appalling, that this is a fact while we are still a nation at war. We have troops at this very moment taking fire, dodging IED’s and facing an implacable enemy who wants nothing more than to see us all, everyone one of us regardless of our skin color or beliefs, dead. Because we are Americans. It is heartbreaking that so many people aren’t even aware as they fire up the barbecue and crack a cold one, that there are families in this country preparing to attend parades, ceremonies and dedications in the name of loved ones who will not come home because they went off to this war others forget is going on.
Part of the reason for this lack of awareness is simply numbers. In nearly fourteen years of war, there have been 6,852 Soldiers, Marines, Airmen, Sailors, Guardsmen and Coasties killed in action, according to the Department of Defense casualty list. That is a sickening number, but in a nation of over 320 million, it represents .002% of the population. Even when we include all active duty deaths from all causes and not just those due to hostile action, we are still looking at a mere .006% of the current estimated US population. (Note - there is no complete, accurate listing of all active duty deaths. The extrapolated number I used, 22,661 is arrived at by adding all active duty deaths from 2001-2010 of 15,444 divided by 10, the result times four added back into 15,444)
When Memorial Day was first observed, back when it was called Decoration Day, it would probably have been impossible to find a single soul, young or old who did not know the meaning of the day. We had just suffered through the most difficult time in our nation’s history, the Civil War. The total war dead from The Conflict Between the States is over 620,000. The true magnitude of that number isn’t fully appreciated until it is understood the staggering percentage of the population that number represents.
In the South, where there was near total conscription, nearly one half of the men of fighting age were killed. In the North where there were approximately two million males eligible for service, more than one in four never came home. The war, and the dead, truly touched every household in the Nation.
Thankfully, even with the huge death tolls of WWl of 116,000 and WWll with 405,000, it took over one hundred years for the total of Americans killed in war to equal the raw number of Civil War dead. Thankfully, we have never and hopefully never will come close to those percentages. Against today’s numbers, we would be talking tens of millions.
Because the percentage of the population today that has been killed in war is so small it is almost understandable, if one feels like being overly generous, that most people are unaware of the meaning, intent and purpose of Memorial Day. On the other hand, something that is so rare should be noted all the more.
Those of us who know the unimaginable pain of having received a flag draped coffin bearing the remains of our loved ones do not want the rest of the country to truly understand our horror. We simply want, on this one day of the year, for all Americans, all those who have the great good fortune of living in this country to recognize and respect the meaning of the day.
Memorial Day is not for all those currently serving in the military – that is Armed Forces Day.
Memorial Day is not for all those who once wore our nation’s uniform – that is Veteran’s Day.
And it is not a celebration or glorification of war.
The words of John Stuart Mill, written over a century ago but as true today as they were then -
"War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse...A person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself."
This one day of the year, we are asked to stop and reflect that for all our faults, what we have here in this country is a rare and wondrous thing. We are free to live, think, worship, speak and vote as our conscious dictates because others have given their lives to ensure our freedoms.
You don’t need to attend a parade, ceremony or dedication to honor the meaning of Memorial Day. In fact, those of us for which every day is Memorial Day do want you to celebrate, have a picnic, barbeque and spend time with your families. Your right and ability to do so is what our loved ones fought and died for, and was what they wanted for those of us back home most of all.
We only ask that at some point as you enjoy your celebrations, remember why you can.
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