On Monday, Americans will celebrate Memorial Day. Officially, it is a day to remember and honor those who have died in the service of their country. Unofficially, it is the start of the summer season, and a day when many Americans enjoy a day at the beach or a barbecue in the backyard untroubled by thoughts of war.
It would be unrealistic to expect that the majority of Americans — most untouched by impacts of the far-flung conflicts now borne by the members of our professional military establishment and their families — will do more than enjoy the day off in the safety and security provided by our men and women in uniform. But it is precisely because of their sacrifices, in the past and continuing into the present, that we are able to enjoy the holiday.
Memorial Day is not only to observe past sacrifices. It is important to note that 26 U.S. soldiers died last year in Afghanistan and Iraq. To date this year, four soldiers have died in the Middle East. Those numbers do not include those killed in training, or the family members who also died a little when they received the sad news.
Memorial Day was born in the blood of the Civil War. On May 5, 1868, General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued his General Order No. 11. “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated 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, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land,” he proclaimed.
On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.
Monday, on the Vineyard and across the country, Americans of all generations, many connected by the bonds of military service, will mark Memorial Day with small and large gestures. Some will march in parades, and others will spend a more private moment. But the day will have some significance.
In an earlier conversation published in The Times on the occasion of Memorial Day, David McCullough of Music Street, West Tisbury, the Pulitzer Prizewinning author and historian, reflected on the importance of observing Memorial Day:
“Well, everything we have in the way of what we love about this country, its institutions, its laws, its freedoms, its ideals, has come down to us because of other people who preceded us. To be indifferent to that is to not just be ignorant, but without gratitude — rude.”
All of what we now enjoy, Mr. McCullough said, “is the consequence of an enormous amount of hard work, talent, ingenuity, often suffering, heartbreak, and disappointment, much of it as a consequence of war.
“When you put yourself in the place of those men and women who were giving their all, and often with the clear realization that it could cost them their lives, and for them to imagine that someday no one would care, is just excruciatingly painful. Of course we should remember.”
Speaking about the Memorial Day celebrations of his childhood, Mr. McCullough said, it used to be a much bigger event than it is now. “Particularly in small-town America, everybody would go out to the cemetery and tend the graves and visit with each other. Make a day of it.” It conveyed a sense of history, community, and unity, with the marchers as well as with those who were absent, Mr. McCullough said.
“I believe very strongly in Memorial Day,” he said. “It should be observed. It should be observed with heart and mind.”
Those with the heart and mind to honor the nation’s war dead are invited to participate in Martha’s Vineyard Memorial Day ceremonies. Early Monday, volunteers will assist the members of the American Legion in putting up flags at the Oak Grove Cemetery, starting at 7:30 am, and taking them down at 3 pm (help is appreciated).
At 10 am, members of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars step off for a parade from American Legion Post 257, opposite Tisbury School, to the Oak Grove Cemetery, where there will be a brief ceremony.