My family has been generally fortunate through the generations that those of our number who have gone to war have returned when war (or that particular war) ended. I mention this to note that there is no particularly personal sense of grievance or distress behind what follows.
Memorial Day, once known as Decoration Day, dates to the era following the Civil War. In the wake of so much death Americans, not surprisingly, needed a way to process such loss and shock in a formalized manner; the custom of decorating graves with flowers wedded itself to a formalized observance in memory of all those who had been killed in the war, and Decoration Day was born. Though the term Memorial Day began to appear as early as the 1880s, apparently, it was not until the twentieth century that the term "Memorial Day" overtook "Decoration Day" as the formal name of the event. (Read the Wikipedia article for more, insofar as you trust Wikipedia.) The musically minded may recall Charles Ives's movement from his Symphony, New England Holidays, titled "Decoration Day," marking the event as he recalled it from his childhood in his singular musical language.
Large-scale observances do mark the occasion today. Parades, observances at cemeteries, and other formal events at various locales call forth solemn contemplation of the sacrifices of those who have died in armed combat on behalf of the United States. One of the more worthy ceremonies in my experience is held annually at the National World War I Museum and Liberty Memorial, in Kansas City. Others take place in different locales; you may have a particular favorite of your own.
That said, there are many for whom the holiday passes with little such reflection. Even as every year new names are added to the swelling list of those who died in war, there are still many for whom Memorial Day basically translates into "four-day weekend." The pool finally opens, the grill finally comes out, and it's unofficially summer no matter what the calendar actually says about that season being three or more weeks off. There is no shortage of lamentation over this neglect of one of the country's more solemn occasions, and it is not my mission to add to it here, however worthy such lament may be.
My concern is something different, something that may seem perhaps innocuous, and might even be seen as an act of patriotism by some. Increasingly over the years, I see Memorial Day (in an unofficial sense) losing its "memorial" connotations.
It is a good and worthy thing to honor those who have served in combat and who (like most of my ancestors who fought) lived to tell about it, or not to talk about it in the case of many. My father was a prime example. You could not extract one word from him about his service in World War II. He once let slip about something that happened at Guadalcanal in my presence, but then clammed up and would say no more. At any rate, such men and women (also being added to daily) should be honored, and indeed there is a day for such observance. It's called Veterans' Day, and it happens in November.
It seems, though, in the mind of many, that Memorial Day is, to the degree it is recalled at all, a more or less generic patriotic occasion which calls forth a sometimes-genuine, sometimes-perfunctory show of supporting the troops, particularly those still among us, without necessarily giving special regard to those who have, in Lincoln's words, given that "last full measure of devotion" on our behalf while wearing one of the uniforms of the American military. As long as we put out a flag, or perhaps zip out some pronouncement about "those who have served..." or sing "God Bless America" or something else patriotic, we're covered.
Increasingly, my heart screams NO! Dammit, no.
Somehow, some way, we must make Memorial Day truly Memorial Day. It is desperately necessary that we rededicate the holiday to marking indelibly upon our memories those men and women who have knowingly put themselves in harm's way for the sake of the United States of America, and paid a price from which they do not return. They deserve that much. We are too often and too willingly far less of a country than their sacrifice deserves. Can we not do this much?
Or do we not want to face what a truly Memorial Day would mean? Do we not want to face the unalterable consequences of our "warring madness," in the words of Harry Emerson Fosdick's hymn? For this is always the price, even of the "good wars" or "just wars" our country may fight. Even the Spanish-American War, blip on the historical radar that it was, cost somebody their son or their husband or their father. How many did not come home from World War II, possibly the most unavoidable war our country has fought (other than perhaps the Civil War)? It will always be thus, as long as humans stride pridefully about this planet nursing grudges or feeling compelled to prove they're "tough." Wars will kill, and will not discriminate among the "good guys" and the "bad guys." And someone's husband, someone's sister, someone's child will not come home.
Can we do this? Can we, even if only one day a year, at least try to be worth the profound and unanswerable sacrifice they have made? Can we look at their lives, their service, their deaths squarely and face that this is what it means and will always mean when we go to war? Can we honor that fact directly, and honor their service and the howling loss their families learned to know, without averting our eyes or looking for some other thing to rouse up our patriotic spirit? Can we simply let "Taps" play, let the tears fall, and resolve finally to be worth it?