In this fractured, distracted present, a national day for any common purpose can seem almost impossibly quaint.
But Memorial Day is a call to rise above differences and remember those who have died fighting this nation’s wars.
This is not a day to glorify war or gin up jingoistic fervor. Not to romanticize or paint over the painful ambiguity of any individual war or armed conflict, generally. Rather, it is a day of solemn gratitude. A day to remember and reflect.
When Maj. Gen. John A. Logan first established this day in 1868, the wounds of the Civil War still were tender. Leader of the Grand Army of the Republic, Logan ordered members of that fraternal order of Union veterans:
“Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
He called on them to adorn the graves of fallen comrades with spring flowers and other decorations, arranging services and testimonials as they saw fit.
The modern observance of Memorial Day has been expanded to honor all who have died in battle, but that original order still holds meaning. This year, of all years — in an election year for a nation with bitter political divisions — it is worth remembering that Memorial Day has its roots in a bitter and painful schism. The brutal conflict played out not against a foreign power, but here on U.S. soil, among the states.
Since the United States was forged in revolution, well over a half-million people have died fighting on behalf of this country in battle or from wounds suffered in battle, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Thousands of men and women have been killed in ongoing conflicts since October, 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
Hundreds of thousands more have died in service but off the battlefield. They came from every corner of the country, from every possible circumstance. A cross-section of a diverse and often divided population united in common purpose for which they would ultimately give their lives.
More than flowers, more than flags and prayers, let this Memorial Day be a call to remember not only the cost, but also the value of a free and undivided republic. To honor those who fought and died to preserve it by vowing to live and act to do the same.