Memorial Day: What do we owe the dead?

On Memorial Day we honor those fallen in combat in service of the United States. Some of the dead are buried in Flanders Fields. John McCrae’s poem by that name speaks of what we the living owe the dead.

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.

Elizabeth II leaves very big shoes to fill

Elizabeth II, queen and stateswoman, died on September 8, 2022, leaving very big shoes to be filled. Hopefully, King Charles III will lead by example as did his parents and grandparents.

Elizabeth Windsor, better known to the world as Elizabeth II or Queen Elizabeth, died on September 8, 2022, at 96 years of age. Her eldest son Charles, 73, ascended the British throne as King Charles III. Elizabeth II leaves very, very big shoes to fill.

Elizabeth II was the longest reigning British monarch, becoming queen at only 25 years of age in 1952. Thus the 96 year old queen the world lost today had an opportunity to build an exemplary track record as a true stateswoman, as a pillar of stability and service.

She led by example, the highest form of leadership. This virtue she learned from her parents, Duke and Duchess of York, later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother).

During WWII, the young Elizabeth and her sister Margaret remained in Britain, instead being sent to Canada or other safer parts of the British Commonwealth. The King and Queen remained at Buckingham Palace, even as Germany bombed London. They often visited neighborhoods destroyed in the bombings. At age 19 Elizabeth joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service, a women’s branch of the British army, and trained as a driver and mechanic.

If anyone kept calm and carried on through turbulence since the Cold War, it was Elizabeth II. She met often with world heads of state, and regularly with her Prime Ministers. She missed only three Openings of Parliament during her long reign, two due to pregnancy and one at the end of her life. The respect she commanded, has been key to keeping the British Commonwealth intact.

King Charles III is now tasked with rising to the occasion. Hopefully, his grandparents and parents’ example of service to the people will guide his path.

Pictured: Princess Elizabeth (in uniform), Queen Elizabeth, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, King George VI, and Princess Margaret, in the balcony of Buckingham Palace at the end of WWII.

%d bloggers like this: