By Kevin Shannahan
Memorial Day remains one of our more misunderstood holidays. There is the dichotomy between a solemn day meant to commemorate our nation’s war dead and a three day weekend that kicks off the summer season. Aside from the laying of a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, there is no ceremonial event to mark the day on a national level. The wreath laying is, for most, a brief mention on the nightly news, a glance and nothing more. That is a shame. The wreath laying is a beautiful and dignified ceremony.
For much of the country, Memorial Day is a three day weekend, a start to the summer, a weekend getaway, a trip to the beach and cookouts. Some television networks play nothing but war movies all day, something I’ve never understood. The day alternates between beach, BBQ, sales and mawkish “look at me” displays of cheap and easy patriotism from the popular culture. I don’t understand why anyone would wish to spend the day bingeing war movies, or why a network would consider this the best use of the day’s programming. I could easily go the rest of my life without seeing another singer swaggering about the stage, his tough guy persona a poor imitation of the real thing. Jingoism wears thin rather quickly.
There is a group of Americans for whom Memorial Day very much retains its original purpose as a day of remembrance. They are the spouses, family and friends left behind after a knock on the door from an officer in dress blues. They are the veterans. They are the men and women still serving. They are the families with a child in the military for whom the evening news now takes on a new dimension.
I have participated in the Bataan Memorial March in White Sands Missile Range several times over the past few years. It is a humbling experience. One year, I was walking behind several women on the course. They looked like a group one would see in any city in the country, with one difference, each wore a shirt with a photograph of a young man in uniform with a date and a place. Between them, they had lost five sons in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two of them had other children still in the military. By the 23rd mile, I was pretty tired. “C’mon sir! You’re almost done!” A young soldier carrying a loaded rucksack motioned me forward as he kept running. His left sleeve bore the patch of the 82nd Airborne. There was no arm in the sleeve. I picked up my pace.
Memorial Day is a manifestation of what Sir Winston Churchill called “the long continuity of our institutions” that bind us together as a nation. Each generation picks up the burdens of freedom from the one before, carries it forward, and hands it to the next. That young soldier who saw me faltering and got me going again is part of a legacy of a unit that jumped into Normandy, fought across Nazi occupied Europe and continues to serve our nation in battle to the present day.
At cookouts and gatherings of friends and family all across America those present will at some point raise a glass or otherwise remember a loved one who did not make it home. In cemeteries across the nation, families and friends will pause by a gravestone and remember. In these small remembrances, some formal, most not, lies the meaning of Memorial Day.
Be worthy of them.