Since its inception as “Decoration Day” after the US Civil War, Memorial Day has continuously devolved, long since reducing to two equally repulsive components: Maudlin nationalism and crass commercialism.
Mostly, Memorial Day weekend is the just first big department store sale holiday of summer. Barbecue grills! Riding lawn mowers! Beer! And perhaps some flowers for the graves of our ancestors, just to placate their ghosts.
Yes, there’s a “patriotic” component: Our politicians mug for the cameras and urge us to “sober reflection” on the history of death in service to the US armed forces, but only if such reflection ignores all other victims of US foreign policy, affirms the wisdom and justice of every American military adventure, and concludes with a hearty “worth the price.”
If Memorial Day is to have real meaning and teach us real lessons, we might best serve ourselves with “sober reflection” on the words of an American whose life preceded its establishment:
After much occasion to consider the folly and mischiefs of a state of warfare, and the little or no advantage obtained even by those nations who have conducted it with the most success, I have been apt to think that there has never been, nor ever will be, any such thing as a good war, or a bad peace.
Remember America’s war dead? Yes, we should — but with a clear view of history and a firm resolve to break its deadly cycle.