Most Americans who bother taking the time to observe Memorial Day do so today, the federal work holiday, rather than tomorrow, the historic holiday for remembering all who died in the uniformed services of the United States.
Memorial Day isn't easy to observe. It is not a celebration in the usual sense. It is about death for a great cause, sacrifice for an idea, and utter loss and grief, at least for a period, for those left behind to remember the faces and personalities and character and uniqueness of each one stilled, frozen in time, when life ended in behalf of the rest of us.
It can be wrenching for those who remain, separated sometimes even by several decades from the actual event, and excruciating for those whose agony is a fresh as graves over which grass has not had time to grow a living, green pall.
Memorial Day ultimately is necessary for anyone seeking to fully understand the greatness of our country, its unity, its visceral dedication to the idea of freedom and justice for all under the rule of law.
It is not coincidental that America's wars have been fought against tyranny that actually sought to destroy freedom everywhere, or tyranny that threatened freedom's strategic interests.
The human commitment is almost too large to comprehend:
- The Revolutionary War required 200,000 in service and 4,435 killed;
- The War of 1812 had 286,000 in uniform and 2,260 lost;
- The War with Mexico required 78,000 in uniform and 1,733 killed;
- The Civil War saw 2.8 million in Union service, with 350,000 killed in combat and dead of disease (about 1.1 million served in the break-away Confederate forces fighting the United States of America, and 200,000 dead from all sources).
- The Spanish-American War saw 306,000 in uniform; 385 died in combat;
- World War I required service of 5 million Americans; only 50, or fewer, survive the inevitable toll of 88 years since it ended; 126,000 were killed;
- World War II required 16 million in service; about 3.5 million are still alive; about 435,000 died in the war;
- About 6 million served during Korea, and about 3.2 million survive; about 54,000 died;
- About 9 million served during Vietnam, and about 8.5 million are still living; about 59,000 died.
- The Iraq service total is a moving number because the war continues, but as of May 17, 2,452 American men and woman had been killed.
- Almost 300 American soldiers have died since hostilities began in Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001.
None of us can fully understood the value of our citizenship until we have passed by (at least mentally) the graves and memorials of all those who defended the United States' right to exist – our right to live free – and gave their lives in the process.
That cost, it should be clearly understood, defended the right of all Americans, including some who returned from fighting our wars, to disagree with the policies that took us to war.
It is an interesting fact of history that Southerners, often considered passionately patriotic in our own time, as a matter of historical record seldom observed U.S. Memorial Day until after World War I. Most of the soldiers from the South who had died in a war to that time had died for the Confederate States, which fought against the United States, during the Civil War. Thus continues the observance of a separate Confederate Memorial Day across most (but not all) of the South. Less time had elapsed between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the end of World War I in 1918 (53 years) than has elapsed since the end of World War II in 1945 and today (61 years).
Hundreds of thousands of graves around the world are silent, perpetual memorials to the men and women who have died to preserve, defend and enhance our united nation and its Constitution.
But the living carry memory forward with all its essential and difficult lessons.
Inscribe the lesson in you own mind and heart. Visit the grave of an American veteran who died in war. Most of the older cemeteries in Northeast Mississippi have graves of veterans who gave their lives.
The national cemeteries in Corinth and at Shiloh National Military Park in extreme southern Tennessee provide a deeply moving setting for reflecting on those who died defending who we are.
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