Saturday, May 29, 2004
Thinking About Memorial Day
A three-day weekend. Memorial Day sales. The beach season starts.
I've been thinking about Memorial Day as a metaphor for how our society deals with war since the second half of the twentieth century. Memorial Day started out as Decoration Day, a day for decorating the graves of soldiers who fell in the Civil War. In 1882, the name of the observance was changed to Memorial Day, and its purpose was broadened to honor those who died in any war fought by the United States.
The ceremonies dedicating the National WWII Memorial today reminded us that the focus is supposed to be on sacrifice and those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. Somehow, Memorial Day has morphed from giving to getting. Who thinks about sacrifice while we're grilling the burgers or scarfing up a discounted mp3 player at Best Buy?
During WWII, all citizens sacrificed to one extent or another. Americans couldn't buy cars, tires, or gasoline. We ate a lot of chicken, because beef was rationed. Forty percent of our vegetables were grown in backyard or rooftop Victory gardens. Everyday life was not business as usual.
But WWII seems to have been the last case of national sacrifice during wartime. I'm too young to remember the Korean War, but during the Vietnam era, I can't recall us as individuals or as a nation having to sacrifice anything - nor were we asked to.
Well, let me amend that last statement - those who were caught up in the draft, and their families, certainly were asked to sacrifice. Today, with an all-volunteer military, even that aspect is gone.
I have been generally supportive of President Bush's military decisions since 9/11. But one great mistake that he made was to not ask the nation for some form of sacrifice in support of the battle against those who seek to destroy us. I believe that we needed to be mobilized, and enlisted, so to speak, in a national effort. The exact nature of our national service, our sacrifice, is not as important as the spirit, the energy, of us all participating.
The threat we face today is in some ways greater and more dangerous that that which we faced from Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini in the 40's. But we're still going about our daily lives as if nothing has changed.
In Israel, the day before Independence Day each year is a memorial day, The Day of Rememberance, Yom Hazikaron. At noon each Yom Hazikaron, sirens sound all over Israel. Everyone stops what they're doing and stand silently. Motorists stop and get out of their cars. The entire country stops for a minute and remembers the sacrifice of those who died in their country's wars.
We would do well to adopt this practice for our Memorial Day. It would be a good start.