Memorial day is America’s day to remember those who perished in the wars in which America has engaged. Three years after the civil war, a war in which 498,332 Americans died, General John A. Logan (Ret.), was serving as the 3rd Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic when he made the following proclamation:
“The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”
The Grand Army of the Republic was founded in 1866 as a veterans organization primarily composed of former Union service members organized to lobby for veterans issues. While at the time, the Civil War was fresh in the minds of Americans, and this organization particularly relevant and influential, General Logan’s proclamation had no law or force behind it that applied to the American population.
This unofficial day of remembrance continued until May 5th 1966 when the congress of the United States and President Lyndon B. Johnson declared Waterloo, New York the birthplace of Memorial day to be celebrated on May 30th. In 1971, Memorial Day was moved to the last Monday in May, and was expanded to include all of the nations fallen servicemen, and not just those lost in the civil war.
Over the years, the nation has established protocols and traditions surrounding Memorial Day. Probably the most well known of those is that it is a day off work. That three-day weekend has been transformed into a marker for the first day of summer. Memorial day is far more to most veterans then BBQ’s and beer, but to a significant portion of Americans it is simply a long weekend marking the advent of summer. I was curious to know how so many Americans had become ignorant of the reason Memorial Day is recognized and in looking, I found a pew poll that provides some potential explanation.
This was pulled from a Pew Research Center study on veteran exposure to casualties. What strikes me is the steadily declining number of casualties throughout our history. I have no doubt that we can thank modern medicine, improved training and better processes for handling casualties for that decline. What our improvements in our ability to preserve life do not show is that casualties and those impacted by them are a steadily decreasing proportion of the population. In the study it indicates that just under half of all veterans knew a deceased servicemen, and about 2/3’rds knew one who was significantly wounded. Outside of their families and circle of friends, how many Americans do we actually think were impacted… especially when compared with 1870…
When we look back to the Pew Poll, it is important to remember that in 1868, the population was about 32 million. It is now nearly 320 million. We have experienced a ten-fold population increase, and 100-fold reduction in the number of casualties since the tradition of remembering our fallen comrades was established. I have seen a number of my fellow veterans share their concerns about the seeming lack of understanding of what Memorial Day is about. Many are angry or frustrated by what they see as ignorance or apathy on the part of their fellow citizens. I have witnessed, and certainly understand the frustration.
Is this the best the marketing departments in our nations companies can come up with? “‘Happy’ Memorial Day, your make up is now on sale?” The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even Vietnam do not personally impact a much larger portion of our society then they perhaps did in the past. While I do not condone the apathy, I can perhaps understand that they simply do not know any better. What I do know is that lashing out at our fellow citizens for a lack of respect, ignorance or other shortcomings this weekend will not change the past. It will not bring our friends back. It will not help take care of their families, and it will not improve the patriotism or respect for their scarifies on the part of our fellow Americans.
Personal example, education, and raising awareness in our society in what it costs to be free, will ultimately fall on the shoulders of those who have personally been impacted. While there are movements to ban military recruiters from campuses across the country, that type of ignorance will not be changed by anger, frustration or tirades. That ignorance can only be changed by inter-personal experience with those of us who understand why we need soldiers, and why it is important to remember them and take care of the families they left behind. It is left to those who know why Memorial Day is a national holiday.
Brittany Jacobs, of Hereford, N.C., watches as her 17 month-old son Christian places a stone on top of his father's, Marine Corps Sgt Christopher Jacobs, grave marker in Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Monday, May 28, 2012. AP / Cliff Owen
To my fellow veterans, we have two options. Work with our fellow citizens to show them why Memorial Day exists, or simply complain and/or accept that a significant portion of the country is going to believe that we are memorializing nothing more then the past winter. Those no longer with us, and their families have sacrificed far too much for the latter to be my choice. To my fellow citizens who are not veterans, thank you! If you are still reading this then you have spent the last five minutes doing more then a significant portion of our countrymen will do to understand and recognize Memorial Day. Please share that concern and patriotism with your countrymen this weekend, and do something for their families.
I still personally believe that ensuring the families of fallen are cared for is the best way to ensure we respect and remember their sacrifice. There are a number of legitimate charities that do exactly that, and if we all do a little, we are not relying on a few.