Memorial Day: celebrated on the final Monday of May, it honors all U.S. troops who have died in war. Originally a holiday intended to honor the soldiers who lost their lives in the Civil War, the date was chosen by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, apparently because there would be many flowers in bloom—flowers to place upon the graves of the Union and Confederate soldiers’ graves in Arlington Cemetery.
I admit that I didn’t understand the full meaning of Memorial Day when I was a child, believing it was simply a date meant to honor the dead—no matter how they died. It was a belief formed by an annual tradition of the extended Bray family, numbering between forty or fifty aunts, uncles and cousins, who gathered each Memorial Day, for a potluck supper, followed by a visit to the family graveside in Northern California, just miles from the Oregon border. Although my father and his brother were veterans of World War II, the day seemed to have nothing to do with remembering those soldiers whose lives were lost in war; rather it was focused on their deceased parents and siblings. The aunts placed flowers on their gravesites, while we restless children turned the cemetery into an adventure, romping over the different headstones dotting the grounds, challenging one another to find the marker with the oldest dates engraved on it. We knew nothing about the lives or the stories of the people whose remains lay beneath the earth.
But I understood a little about the tragedy of war, poring over the pictorial volumes documenting World War II that belonged to my father for countless hours, mesmerized and revolted by the images of dead soldiers and civilians pictured on so many pages. I grew up with a singular belief, perhaps influenced by those photographs, that war was wrong and in the sixties, joined in the youth movement protesting the Vietnam War. I knew or understood little about the young men and women who, by choice or by the call of the draft, were sent into that war. And, unlike the war my father and uncle knew, the Vietnam War polarized a nation at home and did not welcome the returning Vets as those of the Second World War.
I remain a pacifist, against war, and deeply troubled by the fact of the continuing war and bloodshed—whether on battlefields in far-away countries, or the more covert and fearful brand of terrorism that continues to spread throughout the world. Violence, destruction, death—the cost of war exerts a terrible toll on the human spirit, on anyone who has fought in or had their lives torn apart by war. I am touched by the bravery of those individuals, whether soldiers or refugees of war, and I am deeply humbled by their stories.
In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” calling upon all Americans to pause at 3 p.m., local time, on Memorial Day and remember those who died fighting for this country. In the midst of whatever celebration you may enjoy this Memorial Day, I hope you, too, will take a moment to pause, remember and respect the bravery of all those who have died—much too soon and too young—in war.
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
(From “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” by Dylan Thomas, 1933)