Over the past few weeks, I have taken a little time to focus on other priorities such as my primary job (I don’t write on a full-time basis), my family and my fitness (not necessarily in that order). In response to that focus, my attention had shifted away from militaria and the various aspects of collecting during that period of time. Now that we are in the latter half of May, I need to bring my thoughts back to my passion for military history as one of the most important holidays (in my opinion) draws near.
Turning on the news this morning, my interest in the weekend forecast is piqued as the meteorologist begins to discuss the cooler than normal temperatures, the risk of rainfall and how these conditions will impact camping, boating and backyard barbecue plans. The statement really struck me as my only considerations for this weekend surrounded spending time at the various cemeteries and placing flags on fallen veterans’ graves and those of my veteran ancestors and relatives. This activity is something my wife and I have been doing dating back to my time in uniform. Making alternative plans is never a consideration and now my children are so accustomed to this practice, they look forward to Memorial Day.
As our culture continues to morph and shift with each passing year, the gap of time expands and the meaning and origins of Memorial Day fade from the American population’s conscience. In a time where less than half of one percent of Americans are serving in uniform, there is virtually no understanding of the personal sacrifices (that are routinely paid by those on active duty). When someone falls on the battlefield, that societal understanding of the price paid just isn’t there. I increasingly wonder how it is that we arrived at this point.
Americans’ Participation in War
- 1860 US Population (North + South): 29 million | 3.2 million served (10.35% of population)
WWII era (avg. 1941-45): 136.7 million | 16.1 million served (11.8 %)
- Vietnam era (avg. 1964-74) 203 million | 9 million served (4.5%)
Current population: 314 million | 1.4 million serving (0.46%)
With fewer Americans serving in uniform, particularly during the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, general population is disconnected from the costly nature of service. It is no wonder that our culture tends to be more self-focused as they spend Memorial Day without considering the sacrifices that afforded them the freedom to enjoy a three-day weekend.
Through my quest to understand the origins of this particular holiday, I have been led to be more forgiving of people who choose outdoor activities over trips to cemeteries. Considering that the present-day Memorial Day federal recognition was born from Decoration Day – a tradition started following the end of the American Civil War as surviving veterans began to deal with the battlefield losses of their comrades. Over the passing years, these veterans formed various veterans organizations (ranging from unit-specific to the enormous such as the GAR and UCV) and took the lead on preserving the legacy of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Because of the efforts of these groups, battlefield and cemetery preservation and monument construction efforts were undertaken along with ceremonial gatherings for commemorative dedications.
Throughout our nation’s history, it has been the veterans who have taken the lead on honoring the war dead. Mourning the loss of a brother (or sister) who fell on the field of battle is something a surviving veteran never forgets. That moment isn’t simply a memory etched into their minds but rather akin to a remaining scar in place of a missing limb. It cannot be forgotten or, as some civilians would suggest, something to “get over.”
A few years ago, I started taking notice of various references to Decoration Day and antique items that make mention of it. One of those items that caught my attention was a postcard (from the early 20th Century) depicting an elderly Civil War veteran placing a wreath of flowers at a grave. The image, an illustration, was so moving that I was overwhelmed with emotions. The postcard evoked more recent memories of World War II veterans (at D-Day celebrations) paying respects to their fallen comrades some 70 years hence and the fresh, vivid memories painted across their faces.
Over the course of the past century, it seems that nothing has changed. Veterans still ache for their lost buddies and they are compelled to continue to honor them as long as they are physically able to do so. As a veteran, I am committed to continuing the tradition of honoring and remembering those who gave their last full measure protecting and ensuring freedom for future generations.