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It’s perhaps fitting that the nation’s memory of Memorial Day’s origins are somewhat murky. After all, a day of solemn remembrance has morphed into just another day off. If we don’t much remember those memorialized by the day, it’s not likely that we will recall the original reasons for setting the day aside, either.
Memorial Day creation stories are as diverse as the interests championing them. African Americans point to the practice of freedmen decorating the graves of the Union war dead as the inspiration for the holiday. A recent New York Times piece detailed the competing claims of Columbus, Georgia and Columbus, Mississippi, places where Southern ladies draped the burial grounds of the Confederate dead in flowers, for inventing the annual commemoration ritual. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson further confused matters by proclaiming Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of the holiday on the centennial of the town’s first event commemorating the Civil War fallen.
We know when Memorial Day started. We really don’t know where it started. The inevitability of spontaneous demonstrations of sympathy for the departed heroes from a war that claimed 620,000 men make the day’s multiple nativity stories all quite plausible. An event as traumatic as the Civil War couldn’t be forgotten. It simply had to be remembered.
American families back then couldn’t escape the horror of a war that put ten percent of the population under arms and put two percent of the population underground. The ten-year-long Afghanistan campaign’s 1,984 American deaths don’t even approach the number of Americans killed at Cold Harbor in ten minutes. This turn of events is something to celebrate and not mourn. But leaving much of the nation out of its wars does leave a nation unaware, and to a degree unappreciative, of the great sacrifices made to found a republic, liberate slaves, rid whole countries of totalitarian oppressors, and kill the terrorists who would kill us. The current lack of a shared sacrifice makes Americans less reverential of past sacrifices. We are not all in this together.
Losing a loved one in war makes every day Memorial Day. Not experiencing such a profound loss makes Memorial Day like every day. In either case, the day doesn’t change one’s perspective.
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