In the midst of this late Spring weekend, commonly regarded as the gateway to Summer, while grilling burgers and hot dogs, watching the Indy 500, and cherishing the three day weekend many of us have, keep in mind the real reason this weekend is important - Memorial Day.
Since the Civil War, people have reserved a weekend in May for the remembrance of those men and women who gave their lives in war. The holiday grew from local and regional celebrations with varying names into a federal holiday. By 1967, after the passage of the Uniform Holidays Bill, the day and name of the holiday solidified into what we celebrate today.
Memorial Day, for much of America, is no more than a convenient three day weekend. Monday has become a great day for outdoor BBQs and picnics instead of a day of reflection. We flock to movie theaters in droves instead of to cemeteries, choosing to honor living entertainment instead of dead heroes.
Many would argue that our Memorial Day behavior is further evidence of the moral bankruptcy so many pundits claim America suffers. Sure, we lower our flags to half-staff (if we have one), we might watch a war movie on TV, but the extent of our honoring the fallen ends there. Maybe we are bankrupt?
No. I don’t think we are. I think America is suffering through a different problem. A humongous portion of the population has grown up experiencing the same problem, one which is hard to avoid in today’s geopolitical environment.
Recently, CNN published a modified version of Fareed Zakaria’s commencement speech to Harvard, which brought this issue to my attention. Zakaria offered some interesting statistics, which profoundly illuminates today’s peace problem.
First, we currently live in a world which experiences half as much death from war, civil war, and terrorism than in the 1990s. Sure, news broadcasts seem to inundate the airwaves with reports of prolific death, but compared to the 1990s, the number of people dying as the result of war has dropped drastically. From a specifically American angle, though, in the last decade we have lost slightly more than 6,000 soldiers during war actions, which is significantly more than lost during the 1990s. But on a whole, the world has had 50% less death caused by war.
Second, if we look back further, through the past half century. The number of related deaths drops further - 75%. The world has definitely come a long way from the Cold War related military actions of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Additionally, the population of the US born since the end of the Vietnam War accounts for almost 65% of our population. The vast majority of us - including myself - have never experienced a conflict anywhere close to the realm of the war years. Personally, I can not think of any person I have ever known who was a war casualty. I wonder how many of us can anymore.
Third, if taken back to the 1930s and 1940s, the number of people killed in war drops by an astounding 99%. The population of the US who experienced the total war of WWII is less than 10%.
Since Memorial Day is a holiday designed to honor those who gave their lives for their country, it makes sense that its roots are planted deep in the history of the Civil War. Approximately 625,000 American soldiers lost their lives as we fought each other. That number is more than all other other military deaths combined since. During the 1960s, when the Uniform Holidays Bill was passed, the American population remembered well the feeling of war.
While we are currently wrapping up the last decade of limited war, the general American public has lived most of their lives insulated from the realities of war. We don’t know how to honor the fallen because many of us have never had to. Our lack of Memorial Day fervor stems from this reality.
Despite the circumstances, those of us with no one specific to memorialize should still pay our respects somehow. Whether we pay our respects through the display of a flag, by visiting a cemetery, participating in a Memorial Day ceremony, or simply exercising our right to a free life, we should keep in mind the origin of the peace we enjoy and how it was paid for by the blood of so many heroes over the years.