Memorial Day is a day of remembrance in the United States. Today we honor the men and women who died while serving in the American military.
Many of us don’t pay much attention to the formal meaning of Memorial Day. We take advantage of the long weekend to relax and gather with family and friends, or putter around the house, grateful for a respite from work and school. We look forward to a summer break, or vacation plans, or just enjoy the beginning of a season when life is a bit more relaxed. We are aware of the ceremonies taking place this day—the laying of wreaths, the speeches, the lonely sound of “Taps” played on a bugle, an old veteran offering paper poppies for a donation. But mostly this is just another holiday.
Holidays—holy days--are like that—they change meaning and gain and lose significance as we change, and forget, and remember again. Summer has one on each end—today’s, honoring fallen soldiers and their families, and Labor Day, honoring all those who built the nation—with Independence Day in the center, like a tent pole holding the season aloft.
These three days of remembrance demonstrate the tension of the United States: July 4th, a celebration of the inception of this great experiment, when we as a people made this declaration to the world: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness; Memorial Day, born out of the conflagration of our Civil War, when we wrestled with the terrible contradiction that we, the land of the free and the home of the brave, were living off the backs of millions of human beings imprisoned in slavery; and Labor Day, which stands in for our ongoing debate and struggle over what equality and human rights mean.
The United States is not a great nation because we have a large gross national product, or the most powerful Navy, or majestic mountains. We are great because we strive to live up to that glorious sentence in our Declaration of Independence. That is the spirit we celebrate. That is what we remember.
When we ask our fellow citizens to risk their lives for us, the goal should not be to build or maintain an empire, or to impose our views on others. When we as a people decide that we must go to war we should hold ourselves to the very highest standard. When a war ends, we should remember not to glorify battle, but to honor all who have died, and to better the nation and world for which so many have given so much. And at all times we should remember to fight for peace.