Today is Memorial Day in the United States, the day we honor those who have given their lives while serving in our nation’s military. There will be a national moment of remembrance observed at 3PM Eastern Standard Time. Over the more than 140 years of its existence, the Memorial Day weekend has also come to represent the beginning of the summer season in the States.
Memorial Day began as Decoration Day in Waterloo, New York in 1866. A decoration day of sorts occurred in Charleston, South Carolina in May 1865 at the site of a former Confederate prison camp, but Waterloo is given most of the credit for creating the day as we now know it. The village was home to General John Murray, who in turn was a friend of General John Logan, the head of a veterans’ organization called the Grand Army of the Republic. Logan pushed for a national observance on May 30th, a date in which no battles took place during the recent Civil War. The day was originally intended to honor those who died during that conflict, but was soon extended to include those who have paid the ultimate price in all the nation’s wars. The term Decoration Day was used because cemeteries were generally adorned with flags and flowers to honor the fallen. Although the term Memorial Day first appeared in print in 1882, it did not come into common use until the time of the Second World War in the 1940’s.
In 1968, the US Congress moved Memorial Day from May 30th to the last Monday in May. This created a three-day weekend, something that critics of the change point to as one of the reasons the holiday seems to be losing its meaning to so many Americans.
History is full of stories of men and women who showed unbelievable courage under fire even though they invited their own deaths in the process. While we rightly recognize these heroes, it is also important to remember those whose names have been lost to history but whose sacrifices were no less honorable. As a result of the Civil War, nearly every American had lost a family member, friend or co-worker. During the Second World War, Americans again felt that ultimate sacrifice close at hand; as my father said of the neighborhood in which he grew up, “There were a lot of gold stars hanging in peoples’ windows.”
The past 60 years have seen the general public in the United States become increasingly distant from the military. Even with combat taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan as I write this, many Americans personally know no one serving in the military. Our armed forces are smaller as a percentage of the population than they have been since the end of the Revolutionary War and a draft has not existed for 35 years. Yet the ultimate sacrifice is made every day by men and women from every walk of American life whose names will only be remembered by those who loved them. While we can disagree about the merits of any war, those who give their lives during it do so, ultimately, for us and for generations not yet born.
In addition to the Americans who have died in service to our nation over the last 230 years, I ask that you also remember today those from around the world who have given all while fighting with us. Most of the nations of Europe and many other countries from around the globe have sacrificed not just to protect their own interests, but to ensure the continuance of our way of life. To them and their fallen go the thanks of a grateful nation.