There’s no greater act of humaneness than the giving of one’s life to enhance or preserve the welfare of another. The observance of Memorial Day has from its official beginning been – and remains – the exclamation point attached to that thought. It grew out of this country’s darkest days, the 1860s, when Americans fought each other in a deadly civil war for causes in which they believed. During the Civil War, 1861-65, an average of 340 Americans died each day, more than the average of any war before or since, even World Wars I and II, during which the average number of American deaths per day was 320, over a period of 4.5 years of actual combined combat. These are mind-boggling facts, as are the facts regarding any armed conflict, including those in Afghanistan and Iraq today.
One need only to be just cursorily aware of the conditions under which most of the people of the world live in order to appreciate both the freedom and the lifestyle maintained in this country primarily by its military strength and the will of its people to support it. In a most profound way, notwithstanding the statements of the fainthearted to the contrary, peace is the absence of war, and the absence of war on these shores is guaranteed by those who keep it at bay through their willingness to make the sacrifices inherent in peace-keeping.
Unfortunately, peacekeeping sometimes means disturbing the peace. Disturbing the peace means inevitably that lives will be lost as brave warriors “lay it all on the line”…and lose it. In this season, those who have made the ultimate sacrifice are honored, and rightly so. The tragedy, however, does not end on the battlefield. No…it reaches into the homes and the families of those left behind when a loved one makes that ultimate sacrifice. The playing of “Taps” at the grave of a fallen warrior denotes the ending of a life in the service of the country, but in a real sense those plaintive notes signal the beginning of heartache for those who are reminded daily of the empty chair, the times around the table, the singing of the hymns, the everyday things of life no longer shared with that special someone or that beloved family.
Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington is, in a way at least, the paradigm of many national cemeteries across the country, as well as U.S. cemeteries in nations throughout the world. Some are exclusively dedicated to the graves of GIs who have given all; others form small parts of local cemeteries; some are also inclusive of family members of those who died in service to their country. All are reminders that freedom is never free, but must be claimed and secured by whatever means necessary in every generation. Unfortunately, maintaining this security nearly always requires that some make the ultimate sacrifice. Thus, Arlington is the reminder.