What Memorial Day was: in the beginning, a century and a half ago, a commemoration of the Union and Confederate dead in the Civil War. It was called Decoration Day, because its ritual heart was remembrance of the war dead by visiting and adorning their graves. There were distinct days in the South and North; eventually they merged into a single national holiday instituted in hopes of bringing reconciliation after the shattering carnage of the conflict’s four years.
What Memorial Day became: a broader commemoration of the fallen in our wars. The name began to be used in the late 19th century and was made an official federal holiday after World War II.
What Memorial Day often is: a celebration of all who have served in the armed forces of the United States, though there is a day set aside for that purpose every November, Veterans Day.
What Memorial Day should never be: a celebration of war itself. True, some conflicts were forced upon us, advanced human liberty, and had their moments of nobility. Defending our homes, hearths, and freedoms is just. But merely saying a war is right doesn’t make it so, and as painful as it can be to realize, the spilled blood of one of our own doesn’t automatically make the cause just, either.
It seems those who know war best hate it most. Those who merely fancy they know war, from the pages of books or from great deeds projected on silver screens, often seem the most eager to plunge their country (but not themselves) into that hell.
And it is a hell. Even a just war kills, mutilates, and destroys, sowing seeds of cruelty, disease, and ruin. Neither warriors nor civilians truly escape its scourges.
We’re often told Memorial Day is a day of gratitude, a day when we thank those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom. I know that’s what we’re supposed to think. It’s politically correct, in the true meaning of political correctness: it’s the most comfortable interpretation of this holiday, from the standpoint of those who’ve had the power to send our young people off to fight, and used it.
And sometimes, I agree, “Thank you” is the most fitting sentiment. But I don’t know that anyone has the right to tell us as Americans what to think and feel. Maybe sometimes the words that come from deep down are “I’m so sorry.” And, sometimes—always, really—the words written on our hearts, the only words that really matter, are: “We love you, we miss you, and we remember.”
Ninety-eight years ago this month, the English soldier-poet Wilfred Owen wrote these verses about a fallen soldier whose comrades move him into the sun, hoping he will recover under its warmth.
Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it wakes the seeds,—
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved—still warm—too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?
Owen entitled this poem “Futility.” Two months after writing it, he suffered a gunshot wound to the head. Four months after that, as the “Great War” we call World War One was ending, Wilfred Owen died. He was twenty-five years old.
Pablo J. Davis