Memorial Day is the one day, or weekend, set aside each year as a time for solemn remembrance of those who have given their lives in America’s wars.
Public observances of this holiday traditionally occur within families and local communities, and on a larger scale at such places as Arlington National Cemetery. At the more than two dozen cemeteries overseas, where close to half of the American dead from the two World Wars are buried or remembered as missing, thousands of people from the numerous host countries typically attend such ceremonies as well.
Measures spawned of the COVID pandemic greatly restricted the outward observance of Memorial Day last year. Even this year, the ceremonies at our overseas cemeteries will once again be closed to the public. Not since the forces of Hitler’s Germany occupied American cemeteries in France and Belgium during the 1940s has this hallowed national ritual been so disrupted at those sites.
Closer to home, as authorities at all levels progressively relax COVID prohibitions, our countrymen can expect something of a return to normalcy with Memorial Day activities. Traditional parades, community observances, even family picnics will pick up where they left off two years ago in many places. And, if the forecasts of prominent economic observers prove true, there will be a veritable boom in holiday weekend travel compared to last year.
As our country makes its way back to the welcome familiarity of the “usual” from the tortures of the past 15 months of “unusual,” we must be careful not to lose sight of the true meaning and purpose of Memorial Day. Yes, it is a time for hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill. Yes, it is the first weekend of the summer travel season. But, it is also a time for remembering, with honor and gratitude, the soldiers who fought and died in the nation’s wars to preserve the freedoms that allow us all to do pretty much whatever we please on the holiday weekend.
The act of remembrance is not a shallow thing. It involves serious reflection not only on the tragedy and cost of lives cut short on battlefields, but also on the high stakes for which generations of Americans have fought and died.
The world has always been filled with dangerous and evil actors and ideologies that are hostile to the ideals and way of life that our countrymen have traditionally valued. But for the willingness of soldiers to keep watch for us, and to risk themselves in defense of our most treasured freedoms, we would lose them. As much as we would wish it otherwise, and as much as our country has striven in a host of places to make the freedom and well-being of ordinary people more secure, the world continues to be an arena of peril.
Remembering and honoring the dead imposes upon all Americans the additional obligation to rededicate themselves to “the cause,” as President Abraham Lincoln put it at Gettysburg, “to which they here [the dead from the battle] gave the last full measure of devotion.”
The cause, properly understood, is the defense and preservation of our republic and the ideals that gave it birth and offer it ongoing direction. The cause, as the preamble of the Constitution puts it, is to build “a more perfect union.”
Events of the past year have starkly reminded us that there is much work to do on all of those counts. Genuine threats confront us from within and without. Failure to build and reflect upon the work of past generations to defend and improve the land that we love would, among other injustices, dishonor the dead who must remain our principal focus on this and every Memorial Day.