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On this Memorial Day, I have been more disappointed than usual in the general lack of concern for the history and reasons behind this holiday.

Memorial Day started during and after the American Civil War. Latest estimates put the death toll of the Civil War at approximately 750,000. Virtually everyone was affected by loss of life of family or friends. Decorating graves and paying tribute to the fallen helped many with the overwhelming grief.

The tradition took hold in cities and towns all over the country on different dates. On May 30, 1868, the first national Memorial Day was held at Arlington National Cemetery which had been built on the former estate of Confederate General Lee. President (and former Union General) Grant presided over the ceremy along with General Garfield who would later become president. The celebration in those early days was quite somber, a day of mourning. It was not a “legal” holiday in the sense it is now. However, it was a federal holiday, meaning federal workers, many of whom were Civil War veterans, could take the day off with pay.

State by state, laws were passed making May 30 a Memorial Day to Civil War fallen. The former Confederate states were slow to join in the national holiday. This was because in the early days most of the focus was on the sacrifices of Union soldiers to triumph over their enemy, the Confederacy. As time went on, the old enmity faded and the Confederate dead were also honored.

After World War I, the day was changed to a memorial and remembrance of Americans killed in all wars. The somber, mournful nature continued. Parades, speeches and decoration of graves were the usual way of memorializing the fallen.

As a child in a small town, we had the traditional sort of Memorial Day celebration. A parade was held, winding its way through town to each of the cemeteries. Taps was played and a salute fired in each cemetery. It wasn’t much of a parade by some standards. Veterans marched or were driven in open convertibles. The high school band played. The final ceremony was on a bridge where children of fallen soldiers tossed wreaths and lilac bouquets to be carried out to sea. My siblings and I were part of this ceremony as representatives of our great uncle who was killed in World War I before he had the chance to marry. These traditions held great importance for all of us. I hate seeing such a proud tradition of remembrance displaced by drunken parties.

Probably the worst thing to happen to Memorial Day was its designation as a “Monday holiday” in 1971. The long weekend has become the unofficial start of summer. Many communities still hold parades and ceremonies. But, for many Americans today, it’s all about beaches and barbecues. The fallen heroes are not remembered.

I was particularly offended this year by Chris Hayes of MSNBC who said he was uncomfortable with calling all fallen soldiers “heroes”. This was completely outrageous and disrespectful. My already low expectations of the media have taken a nosedive. I was also deeply disturbed by many comments I saw online which were focused on the “elitists”, politicians and profiteers who create agenda driven wars rather than those who have died in service to our country. While, I do believe hope and prayer for peace in our future is appropriate, I also believe that editorializing about political agendas is disrespectful. This is a day to remember and respect those who gave their lives not to judge politicians. And, while I believe that all service members and veterans should have our gratitude every day, this is not the holiday for celebrating them. This day is for those who went and never returned.

For those who think that brave men dying for the foolishness of those in authority over them is a modern phenomenon:

           The Charge Of The Light Brigade
               by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
“Charge for the guns!” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turn’d in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder’d:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel’d from the sabre stroke
Shatter’d and sunder’d.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro’ the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.


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