Memorial Day is obviously a day of reflection and a chance for one to take stock of those who sacrificed for the United States and what it stands for.
There’s probably someone who could articulate the words better or have more understanding of what service men and women have gone through fighting in our country’s wars. I don’t think I could ever craft something that could ever come close as a suitable thank you. The price that these brave men and women paid is something much greater than a newspaper column could ever hope to encapsulate.
I hope I can bring up a little bit of information on the day, as the holiday has roots that go back to the American Civil War.
Memorial Day was originally Decoration Day, established in 1868 to honor the Grand Army of Republic. The first national Memorial Day service was held at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1929. The preferred name changed gradually from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day” which was first used in 1882. The United States had gone through the Civil War that saw – on the low estimate – 705,000 Americans die. Death was a constant during the war, when you consider that this was the costliest war our country has fought – back when the population was just 31 million.
To put this in perspective, two percent of the US population at the outbreak of the Civil War died. If that kind of percentage was used today with America’s population of 324 million, the death toll would have been 6.5 million.
Death touched every American town during the Civil War, and the country came out of that war changed forever. A newfound respect for the dead was necessary because the country had never seen such carnage.
Arlington National Cemetery, located across the river from Washington D.C., was built out of necessity since other federal cemeteries were filling up from all the battle casualties. The federal government used the family estate of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the first military burial was made on May 13, 1864.
The first African-American buried there was William H. Johnson, an employee of President Lincoln. Lincoln made sure he was buried in the new cemetery and had Johnson’s name engraved on the tombstone, along with the word “citizen.”
Memorial Day became more common after World War II and was not declared the official name of the holiday by Federal law until 1967. On June 28, 1968, Congress passed the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” which moved four holidays, including Memorial day to the current three-day weekend we have each year.
Today, the number of US soldiers that have died during combat or during wartime beginning in 1775 totals 1.3 million along with another 40,000 that have gone missing.
I’ve seen a question brought up time and time again, “why do historians and history books focus so much on the wars?” and my layman’s response would be that wars elicit change in the world. The impact of war is felt years, decades and even centuries afterwards.
Had these men and women not laid down their lives in America’s conflicts, the world and our country would have been a different place. Regardless of your political views, one has to acknowledge that our military men and women have made the ultimate sacrifice. So have their families. A sacrifice many of us can’t comprehend or begin to understand.
There’s no real way to repay them for that, but we as a country take time out one time a year to honor them. They deserve that.
Say what you will about foreign policy, but I’ve heard time and time again – America’s heart always seems to be in the right place. Many historians will marvel at how we have to come to grips with war – before we get into one, while we’re fighting one and once we realize its aftermath.
Some will tell you that the rest of the world is much more pragmatic, much less idealistic. Our American confidence and belief in freedom sometimes is double-edged but at least it has two edges. We have a conscience as a country and it only takes a quick scan of either history books or today’s headlines to see that a national conscience is something human history is sadly lacking.
So I’ll try my best to express my gratitude. It won’t be enough.
War is an experience I know I couldn’t bring myself through. I can’t fathom it. But the number is there: 1.3 million people died for their country under some of the worst of circumstances. They deserve more than these two words and I wish I could think of them, but sometimes simplicity is the best.
By Brandon Hansen/The Independent Staff