Scenes of GIs mooning for their girls back home, baseball, hot dogs and Mom’s apple pie were a staple of Hollywood movies about World War II. But those scenes never rang true with any of the WW II combat vets I’ve talked to. What they recall obsessing over was the misery around them: the weather, the hunger and the constant fear of maiming or death.
War isn’t pretty. It’s nothing to wax nostalgic about.
The war that soldiers know is about service and sacrifice. For some, that meant never seeing another sunrise, never holding their folks or family again. An appreciation of that harsh reality is what gave rise to Memorial Day. It’s a single day, just one day, where we are meant to pause and remember those who gave everything for us.
No surprise, then, that the commercialization of the Memorial Day weekend repulses many. Those who have lost a loved one to war, or had casualties shatter their lives, are not impressed when car dealers, appliance salesman and hardware stores mark the day by offering deals you just can’t beat.
Quite a few Americans, it seems, never think of the extra day off as anything more than another long weekend. They may head down to Main Street for the Memorial Day parade and then race over to the local megamart for last-minute cookout or picnic supplies, never reflecting on why the day has been set apart.
To be fair to American sensibilities, every national holiday has become commercialized. It is easy to track the seasons at local pharmacies, where the paraphernalia on the shelves rotates to service Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter and Mother’s Day in rapid succession.
On the one hand, it is hard to argue with freedom and free enterprise. Stores are just giving customers what they want: sales when consumers need them or have the time and luxury to take advantage of Black Friday or Veterans Day deals.
Indeed, in the era of COVID-19 restrictions, when we are told when, where and how can we shop, we miss what we took for granted. These are — or were — everyday freedoms, just a fraction of the freedoms guaranteed for us by the victories on battlefields from Bunker Hill to Afghanistan. It seems severe to criticize our fellow citizens for yearning nostalgically for the days of unfettered, unmasked shopping sprees again.
On the other hand, COVID-19 has also reminded us that our freedom, safety and prosperity are heavily dependent on the service and sacrifice of others. Today, the front is not “over there,” it’s right here in our communities. And, yes, our armed forces have waded into the battle, but they’re not the only ones on the front lines. Nor is it just first responders who have answered the call.
Day after day, countless doctors, nurses, store clerks, cashiers, mailmen, truck drivers, meatpackers and more are putting themselves on the line for us. And they, too, are taking casualties for the common good.
Which brings us to the rather thorny question: Are we decently honoring those who have given their all for us, if we’re focused on clinching the deal of a lifetime or grilling those burgers to perfection?
Maybe, there is a middle ground here. Let’s not begrudge the store that wants to take 50% off or the citizen who wants to take advantage of a desperately needed good deal. But let’s not forget the reason for the season just because it’s sales day.
Commercials and advertisements can remind folks of the weighty importance of the day. Companies can commit part of their profits to charities like TAPS — the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, which provides assistance to the children of fallen military personnel.
Businesses and customers can partner in charitable and community activities. My organization, the Heritage Foundation, for example, works with a group called Feed the Heroes, which buys food from stressed local restaurants to provide meals for hospital workers during the COVID-19 crisis. Similar activities could be jointly organized to help honor the fallen.
We know Americans are up for this kind of civic activity. Thousands of Americans, for example, participate every year in Wreaths Across America, placing wreaths on graves at military cemeteries all over the country.
We can do this America. We can practice our freedoms and practice remembering those who gave their lives so that we could keep them.