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Memorial day is a Day of remembrance. It is a day of mourning – but it is also a day of celebration. Even as we are sad for the sacrifices of the fallen, it needs to be balanced by gratitude for what those sacrifices gained us. We have freedom. We have prosperity. We aren’t the client state of some other power. These are good things that soldiers protect. Sometimes they die. Do not separate the soldier’s death from what the soldier died for.

I understand that parents, siblings, children, close friends of the fallen, may never be able to step back and see it that way.  That’s OK. The rest of us have to do that for them. You can honor someone by weeping and mourning. You can also honor someone by holding a wake. On Memorial Day, we do both. You aren’t celebrating war or death. You are celebrating courage and sacrifice.

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We have a volunteer force today. It is not a poverty draft nor is it particular to any racial or ethnic group. Nothing could be more insulting to the enlisted! Nobody joins the military in times of active hostility without understanding that their life could be the price.  When I signed up, I well understood that. Even if I had not, it was drilled into me even before I signed the papers and while I was still able to leave basic without penalty. (There was a 2 week grace period during basic when I joined.) Nobody enters a combat unit with their eyes closed.

I entered an Air National Guard combat unit (261st Combat Communications Squadron) that didn’t see combat and served in a 6 year period of relative peace before the first Iraq war. Had I not had a little girl to take care of, I would have reenlisted. Had I reenlisted I would have volunteered to go. It’s as simple as that. Voluntary subordination of the self to what you hope is a greater good. You understand that you may be sent to die over something meaningless but you understand it may be something important to the well being of the country. And you understand that you may never know the truth.

Decoration day postcard, 1909.

Still, today’s soldier volunteers. And that is a very good thing. Nobody has to serve who doesn’t want to. Nobody goes into a combat unit who isn’t willing. There are plenty of low risk support positions with excellent technical training, if that is what you want. It is purely a matter of civic duty. If that isn’t heroic right there, what is?

The origin of the day was soon after the civil war. People today have no concept of the bloodshed involved in that war. Suppose we, today, were to lose six million soldiers. That’s the proportion. Some communities lost their entire young male populations. Half of those losses were in the South, which had only half the population of the Union to start with. There was a common impulse to commemorate the dead. In the North it was born as Decoration Day and soon every state in the country had adopted it.

In 1971, after the brutality of the Vietnam War, it was finally adopted as the national holiday of Memorial Day.

The original design for the Vietnam War Memorial was just a shallow V of two somber black walls with the names of the dead. I’ve visited the Vietnam Memorial and it is deeply moving.

Photos from Vietnam Veterans Memorial – The wall

The tradition is to start the day out decorating the graves of soldiers with wreaths and flowers. Families assemble to console one another.  Viewing official ceremonies like the laying of the wreath at the tomb of the unkown soldier serve for many of us. Those who can, move on to the wake. This has morphed into the barbecue, the day at the lake & afternoon baseball.

This blog post is my version of decorating the graves. You decorate war graves with pretty flowers and bouquets, not sack-cloth and ashes.

Not just for the North…

I remember a day several decades ago where I went to watch “Coming Home” (with Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, and Bruce Dern) on Memorial Day at a theatre near Hollywood. It was an antiwar flick about the extreme physical and psychological trauma many returning troops had endured. Vietnam was still an extremely hot-button issue and Jane Fonda was still reviled for her stupid (some say treasonous) behavior during the conflict. It was my way to honor the soldiers at the time. I was the only one there and the theater gave me the $3 ticket for free.

The celebration is important too. Celebrate that there are people with the courage to put their lives on the line for a greater cause. When I die, I’d much prefer to have people celebrating my life than mourning my passing. More wake, fewer tears.  So I’ll do my bit of mourning and then celebrate the lives of the soldiers and country they died for.