We do lots of activities over Memorial Day weekend: picnics and barbecues, tent sales and, not to forget the big event itself, the Indianapolis 500.
Don’t blame the shrug of modern life for sidestepping the holiday’s true importance. When Memorial Day began right after the Civil War as Decoration Day, it was a time for families to visit the graves of their knighted Union dead, outings immediately re-purposed by amorous young folk.
“Decoration Day was also a day of courtship for the young people,” notes holiday scholar Jack Santino, pointing out how 19th century couples would wander off to the more remote spots of woodsy cemeteries.
Given Memorial Day’s practical uses, we can’t be blamed for wondering, as we dip our heads and reflect on the sacrifice of soldiers who gave their lives for the country, for whose benefit do we do this?
The noble dead? To please those gazing down at us from heaven?
Maybe so. Though I would suggest that we remember those who yielded their lives, not as a favor to them but for ourselves. Dignity demands it. Our nation did not form spontaneously, like a mountain range, but was wrested by intention and force from Mother Britain. Nor did it survive for 240 years without the exercise of military power — often in folly, true, but sometimes crucially, to make sure the Wehrmacht didn’t come rolling down Michigan Avenue.
It’s ungrateful not to remember our fallen, at the very least.
Though it is only that: the very least. We who are safe and never asked by our government to do anything, who chafe at the thought of obeying authority or paying taxes, crack open a beer and nod once at those who gave up everything for the dream that is America.
Or was. Memorial Day 2016 comes at an exceptional moment. If it feels a little unsettled, a little hollow, remember we’re in the shadow of the newly crowned Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, a man who not only never served his country but mocked those who did.
“He’s a war hero because he was captured,” Trump sneered last July, dismissing the military career of Sen. John McCain. “I like the people who weren’t captured, I hate to tell you.”
Not as much as I hated to hear it. Back then, our national naiveté was such that many imagined Trump had gone too far, that the righteous anger of vets and former POWs would rain down upon him.
Not a squeak. Even McCain, 79, who had already tarnished his legacy by inflicting Sarah Palin upon the nation, encrusted himself in a new layer of shame by rolling like a puppy at Trump’s feet.
McCain not only shuffled into Trump’s corner — pathetically hoping he might yet apologize for slurring vets 10 months ago — but chided those who didn’t rush to join him as “out of step” with voters.
“You have to listen to people that have chosen the nominee of our Republican Party,” McCain said. “I think it would be foolish to ignore them.”
And McCain now thinks that foolish is bad? Doesn’t that contradict his backing Trump? From where I’m standing, foolish is the new stripe on the American flag. Trump is running on the Foolish Platform, born aloft on the shoulders of fools.
So Happy Memorial Day. Sure, you can remove your baseball cap at the parade and stand clapping as the old soldiers march past. Or you can remain seated, curl your lip, and hold up both middle fingers snarling, “I like the people who didn’t serve.” Nobody will hold it against you. Our once-brave nation has followed Alice, or rather, Donald, down the rabbit hole and into this grim Wonderland where words fly off the screens and flutter around our heads. If nothing the Republican candidate for president says means anything, then why does anything anyone says mean anything? What were all those soldiers dying for? For this? This funhouse mirror image of what makes America great? They died so we could come to this? Really?