Today isn’t about you. It isn’t about us. It isn’t even about the survivors.
It’s about the dead.
It’s about those souls from Lexington and Concord to Afghanistan and Iraq who died in the service of this great nation. That’s why it’s called Memorial Day.
All too often we tend to forget that, even as we claim to remember. Well-intentioned Americans increasingly observe the day by posting messages about thanking or celebrating veterans. And that misses the point, as many veterans politely but firmly point out.
“Don’t wish me a happy Memorial Day,” former Navy SEAL Robert O’Neill — the man who killed Osama bin laden — wrote in a Fox News opinion piece published this weekend.
“There is nothing happy about the loss of the brave men and women of our armed forces who died in combat defending America,” O’Neill added. “Memorial Day is not a celebration.”
Sure, we still have formal parades, and some of us still place flags over the graves of those who served. For most, though, this long weekend mostly means the unofficial start of summer, drenched in beer and barbecue sauce. Don a piece of clothing with the flag, post something vaguely patriotic on Facebook, and your duty is done, right?
Enjoying time with family and basking in the sunshine after a dreary winter are all beautiful and understandably human ways to spend a long weekend in this hard-working country — and this is a free country, after all. Those who died helped secure our rights to life, liberty and happiness, to spend this annual holiday how we choose.
We’re simply saying that it would be more fitting if more of us remembered the true meaning of the day and treated it with reverence.
A seemingly innocuous change approved 50 years ago may have helped transform Memorial Day from somber to celebratory. In June 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, moving Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day and Veterans Day to be observed on certain designated Mondays starting in 1971, rather than on their traditional dates.
While Veterans Day was later moved back to Nov. 11 (the day World War I hostilities ended in 1918), Memorial Day continues to be observed on the last Monday in May, rather than on its traditional date of May 30.
Critics have suggested reducing Memorial Day to merely another long weekend helped undermine public appreciation of its significance. There is probably a good deal of truth to this, but there are bigger cultural shifts at work.
Long stretches of relative peace mean that fewer Americans have recent, direct connections to line-of-duty deaths than in decades past. As World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam faded into the distance, so did our collective understanding of Memorial Day.
Then came 9/11 and the War on Terror. Once again, Americans were dying overseas in significant numbers — though, thanks to modern medicine and technology, those casualties are vastly lower than they would have been in earlier conflicts.
Even as young men and women continue to die for our freedom, too many Americans still don’t understand the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Maybe it’s a failure of our schools, or our collective culture. Maybe it’s simply too easy forget when war hasn’t directly touched your life and family.
Whatever the reason, each May seems to end with the vast majority of us inadvertently breaking faith with those who died. Remember that today.