We forget. It’s Memorial Day, but we forget. Too often we are swept up in the venal, horse race politics that dominate the cable, radio, and online yadda yadda, and we forget about what it means to be at war.
Although many of us regard the long Memorial Day Weekend as the opening chord in the Vineyard’s summer music, a moment’s reflection should convince even the most lighthearted Islander that Memorial Day is not the beginning of anything, nor is it just another holiday weekend. It is a brief, sober pause in this nation’s lengthening journey.
Of the Revolutionary War, actually of war itself, Abraham Lincoln wrote: “It breathed forth famine, swam in blood, and rode on fire; and long, long after, the orphan’s cry and the widow’s wail continued to break the sad silence that ensued.”
True of the opening chapter of the nation’s struggle for independence, Lincoln’s words are true today as we watch the aftermath of war in Iraq and the approaching end of our wartime involvement in Afghanistan. There will be wailing and sad silences.
Monday will be meaningful. In these angry, disputative, even poisoned times, when history’s hold on us has weakened, Memorial Day can be about absent fathers and brothers and sons, but it can also be about more than that. It can recall founding principles and the ideas, set forth in the Declaration of Independence, for which so many have sacrificed so utterly.
As Lincoln told the thousands who heard him at Gettysburg, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion…”
We must remember all the honored dead and the Declaration that named the idea for which they died.
Lincoln’s words are, of course, most often associated with the Civil War. Indeed, it was the Civil War’s dead, North and South, who were the first to be remembered on Memorial Day. Honoring the graves of the war dead began before the close of the Civil War. In the South, the town of Columbus, Mississippi, held observances for fallen Union and Confederate soldiers in 1866. Waterloo, New York, is the birthplace of Memorial Day in the North.
Officially, in 1868, Commander in Chief John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic issued a general order designating May 30 of that year “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.”
But, we ask, what good — indeed, what sense — can be made of the horror that is war?
As we pause to remember how difficult and how costly the journey has been and to memorialize those who paid so dearly for the free lives we Americans live, and because they have not paid with their lives for nothing, we reflect on what their sacrifices have bequeathed to us.
With speeches, flags, salutes, and parades, we’ll join the nation Monday in renewing our national determination to forget no one who has fought and died for us and to remember why.
We’ll remember, but we must also consider “the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced,” as Lincoln reminded his listeners at Gettysburg.