Monday 29, 2023, the last Monday in May, is Memorial Day. Like Christmas, Mothers’ Day and other holidays, Memorial Day has become a day for taking advantage of store sales – “Memorial Day Sale!”
Before collective sensitivities were obliterated by quests for increased sales, Memorial Day was observed by giving thought to those who did not return, who perished in some God-forsaken field of battle. Traditionally Memorial Day was a day to visit cemeteries, clean and decorate graves, and picnic. Yes, picnic, especially in crowded cities where cemeteries may have been the only green, open space. Peace in the community of saints.
It is always good to remember that Memorial Day is very different from Veterans Day (celebrated November 11 of each year). Memorial Day remembers the fallen in war. Veterans Day remembers all who served in the U.S. military. Useful also to understand the origins of these holidays.
Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, started in 1868 as observance of the estimated 620,000 lives cut short during the American Civil War (originally called the War Between the States). After World War I, in which 53,000 American soldiers died in combat, the solemn day was expanded to honor all combatants who died in service of the United States. It became an official federal holiday in 1971.
Veterans Day, by contrast, commemorates those who served. Originally Veterans Day was known throughout the world as Armistice Day, in observance of the World War I truce between Allies and Germany at Compiegne, France, on November 11, 1918. In 1954, the name of the holiday was changed to Veterans Day, to commemorate all who served in the U.S. military. Other countries changed the name Armistice Day to Remembrance Day after WWII.
Both holidays, Memorial and Veterans Day, have some connection with World War I. While we do commemorate, we should also give thought that at one time WWI was called “The war to end all wars.” Purportedly, the perception at the time was that such great slaughter of soldiers and civilians would be avoided in the future. Unfortunately, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which ended WWI, was replete with destabilizing punishment of Germany and forceful intrusions in the Middle East. Thus, in retrospect, World War II and Middle East conflicts would seem inevitable.
Leaders’ desire for power dominated the Halls of Versailles in 1919. Seems like not much has changed as we reflect on American lives lost in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. On this Memorial Day, we honor all those fallen in combat, and hopefully also give thought to a future where leaders of all nations would choose prosperity rather than slaughter.
Pictured above is an illustration from the website of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3617, Wenatchee Valley, Washington. John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields accompanied the illustration. McCrae, soldier and physician in WWI, gave voice to the dead buried in Flanders Fields, Belgium. The poem ends with a plea for the living to continue the fight which the dead left unfinished.
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Ever since, the question in some minds has been, that fight of 1914 to 1918 or all the fights that keep following. If the latter, the fallen in Flanders Field shall never find rest. Perhaps a lasting peace, in which young men and women will no longer be buried in battlefield makeshift graves, is what we really owe the dead.