Not too long ago, my wife of 34 years who knows me pretty well said, “I never knew how patriotic you are.” I guess in this fragmented society of red and blue states, being patriotic sends more of a confusing political message than intended. Growing up I had, by request, red-white-and-blue wallpaper with stars on it, and being President of the United States sounded like a great job. Now, I would pass on the opportunity.
What prompted my wife’s comment was that I never miss a Memorial Day parade. I’ve gone for years and always take my children. Dov, my 20-year-old, would still go with me if there was a parade this year. In our town, it is a nice parade, but it pales in comparison to the Tulip Time parades that precede it by a few weeks. Still, it is my favorite parade.
The attraction seems to be that we take time to acknowledge those who died in service to our country. You can argue whether our recent military interventions were appropriate, why we got into Vietnam or Korea, and whether war can be reconciled with Christian theology. Still, pick something as clear (in my mind) as WWII and we see the importance of fighting for something bigger than any individual. And fighting involves death.
On Memorial Day we honor the soldiers who died in war. We are honoring people who on average were in their 20s. In fact, the ages get younger (with the average age of deaths being 23 in Vietnam) in history until we get to our current all-volunteer army, where the average age for those that die is around 29.
For those that die, they leave behind many who grieve. Too many parents lose their children, brother and sisters are robbed of siblings, and young children lose a parent. What Memorial Day is in many ways is a day of grief that we, as a nation, take time to honor. War creates death and grief. I’ve seen many stoic faces from the soldiers in those parades, who may be walking because someone else died for them. This is not a day of celebration, but a day of mourning with a parade that ends with muffled drums at a cemetery.
In recent years, you see parents carrying a banner honoring their son or daughter lost in war. I wish I had a parade to walk in and carry a banner of my six-year-old son, dead because of cancer. It is another way to present our loss, our grief, and to receive the support of the community. Because the embrace of the community helps those in grief, I’m sure the parents who honor their children on Memorial Day are both drained and comforted by this day.
As with many holidays, Memorial Day has become another 3-day weekend, the unofficial kick-off of summer, and a day of barbecues. I enjoy all that as well, but let us also pause to acknowledge the youth we have lost, and the families left in grief. We should be proud that our nation takes time to acknowledge death in war and the grief that it creates. Our society has not shunned the tragic loss of young people in war or hidden it all behind shows of military might. So let us honor the dead on Memorial Day, and comfort those left behind.