of Memorial Day
Pay homage to those who didn’t return
‘…it’s not a celebration, it is a day of solemn contemplation over the cost of freedom.’ Tamra Bolton
Around this time of year, the fourth Monday in May, I write a piece about Memorial Day. This piece will appear online before Memorial Day and, in-print, a few days post.
However, Memorial Day is sufficiently important to warrant more than a single day, or so I have always believed. It was fashioned to be quite a different day than it has become.
Memorial Day began in 1868, when it was first observed. It was then called “Decoration Day.”
It began with decorating the graves with flowers of both Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. It morphed into a day to honor the dead from all American Wars, and not just the Civil War, for which the day was initially incepted.
There is considerable debate about the day. Is it one of celebration or remembrance? Should it be spent reveling or in soulful, prayer-worthy thought?
Fancy this, I have an opinion here. As you would expect, I am about to share it with all of you.
To me, Memorial Day is the time we remember the thousands dead, all of whom paid the ultimate price for the millions these heroes liberated. We pay homage to the American soldier who bled into many a foreign soil the battle cry of freedom.
I will never forget what former General Colin Powell said sometime around the Gulf War, if memory serves. I can’t remember the exact occasion; but it was a speech I watched and which left on me a lasting impression.
I believe he was Secretary of State at the time of his delivering it. I call it “The Great Protector” speech.
In that speech, Powell said something which should be as long remembered and oft-quoted as The Gettysburg Address. It was as masterful a piece of prose, both in its brevity and brilliance. Here was what Powell said…
“Far from being the Great Satan, I would say that we are the Great Protector. We have sent men and women from the armed forces of the United States to other parts of the world throughout the past century to put down oppression.”
Powell continued, “We defeated Fascism. We defeated Communism. We saved Europe in World War I and World War II. We were willing to do it, glad to do it.”
“We went to Korea. We went to Vietnam. All in the interest of preserving the rights of people.”
“And when all those conflicts were over, what did we do? Did we stay and conquer? Did we say, 'Okay, we defeated Germany. Now Germany belongs to us? We defeated Japan, so Japan belongs to us? No."
"What did we do? We built them up. We gave them democratic systems which they have embraced totally to their soul.”
“And did we ask for any land? No; the only land we ever asked for was enough…to bury our dead. And that is the kind of nation we are.”
That speech, and ones like it, is the entire reason we should always remember, as opposed to celebrate, Memorial Day. It is why I reflect on soldiers from our past who served the interests of liberty and freedom so fully and ably. It is why I reflect, every Memorial Day, on military service and its noblest of callings…the laying down one’s life in the interests of freedom should Divine Providence determine it to be that soldier's destiny, that soldier's cost.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in a speech he delivered on Memorial Day in 1884, had an interesting perspective on the topic. Holmes was speaking before John Sedgwick, Post No. 4, Grand Army of the Republic in Keene, New Hampshire.
Holmes had been a veteran of the Civil War. Catharine Pierce Wells, wrote in Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and the American Civil War that he “…spent three terrible years fighting in the Civil War. By any standard his experience was horrific.”
She continued, “He was wounded three times, suffered a nearly fatal bout of dysentery, and endured the deaths of many of his closest friends. Without a doubt, it was the most affecting period of his life.”
As an undergraduate, Holmes left Harvard to join the Twentieth Massachusetts Regiment. The Regiment didn’t do any fighting before his graduation so Holmes was able to complete his exams and graduate in his uniform.
Holmes quickly rose to the rank of captain and served with distinction and honor, much like his service on America’s Court of Last Resort. In October of 1861, he was shot in the chest at Ball’s Bluff.
He later became a justice on the United States Supreme Court. To this day, he ranks among its most influential and distinguished justices, serving from 1902-1935.
His speech, Holmes believed, provided “…an answer which should command the assent of those who do not carry our memories, and in which we of the North and our brethren of the South could join in perfect accord.”
Holmes continued, “To fight out a war, you must believe in something and want something with all your might…One may fall-at the beginning of the charge or at the top of the earthworks-but in no other way can he reach the reward of victory.”
Holmes contended there were things worth dying for, worth fighting for, and that we had a duty to give both tribute and honor to those who fall in service of that quest. In that way, Holmes reasoned, we observed Memorial Day because it helped us, the living.
Holmes wrote, “I believe from the bottom of my heart that our memorial halls…are worth more to our young men by way of chastening and inspiration than the monuments of another hundred years of peaceful life…” I do too.
One of the finer things I have ever read about Memorial Day didn't come from any magnate of military and/or public service. It came from a citizen, a writer, and (in comparison) an ordinary person, though certainly distinguished in her field and in her own right.
I am not sure whether any of you have ever read this particular free-lance writer. I would recommend her work to you, if you’re unfamiliar.
Tamra Bolton is a self-described Writer and Photographer, who loves coffee, travel, nature, food, family, Texas, and animals. She has published articles to Parade Magazine, the newspaper, Tyler Morning Telegraph, and Oakland Magazine among several other regional and national periodicals.
She’s credited with saying about Memorial Day, “This is the day we pay homage to all those who didn’t come home. This is not Veterans Day, it’s not a celebration, it is a day of solemn contemplation over the cost of freedom.”
I couldn’t agree more. I think on this we all may be in agreement.
We have many celebrations now cluttering our national calendar. Scores of us would say too many, though those craving the time off might advise we keep this to ourselves.
We need more national days of introspection and study. We need more days to contemplate freedom and its cost. We need more days to remember to keep clutched closely to our collective breasts days like Memorial Day; days of remembrance, days of solemnity, and days of contemplation and growth.
There has been a tremendous toll exacted of our fallen patriots in exchange for the freedoms with which we are now imbued. Perhaps we should erect a national memorial or something. Perhaps we should just give it its own day. Seems reasonable…
This if Fletcher Long, reminding you to take this for whatever you find it worth but THAT’S THE LONG VERSION!