By Dave Kopel, of the Independence Institute
4/26/00 11:30 a.m., National Review Online. More by Kopel on Civil War history.
To much of the American public, Memorial Day means "the three-day weekend which marks the beginning of the summer." This trivialization of Memorial Day is not just unscientific (since the summer begins on the solstice), but is also profoundly disrespectful those men who made it possible for so many people to enjoy easy living on three-day American weekends: the men who died defending freedom in American wars.
Originally called Decoration Day, Memorial Day grew out of graveside memorial commemorations in the North and South, at the end of the War Between the States. After World War One, the day become one of remembrance for all American war dead.
On Memorial Day in 1895, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., (formerly a combat-tested Union officer, and soon to a Supreme Court Justice), observed that, as the Civil War recessed into the distant past, "war is out of fashion, and the man who commands attention of his fellows is the man of wealth. Commerce is the great power. The aspirations of the world are those of commerce. Moralists and philosophers, following its lead, declare that war is wicked, foolish, and soon to disappear."
Holmes might find in today's United States the same sensibility that he found in the prosperous, increasingly soft America of 1895: "From societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals up to socialism, we express in numberless ways the notion that suffering is a wrong which can be and ought to be prevented, and a whole literature of sympathy has sprung into being which points out in story and in verse how hard it is to be wounded in the battle of life, how terrible, how unjust it is that any one should fail."
Today, teachers follow the orders of educational theorists to forbid small children from playing Tag or Musical Chairs, because the games have winners and losers.
Yet without the willingness of so many Americans to risk failure and death, there would have been no American Revolution, no conquest of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, no victory in the Cold War.
And so, Memorial Day — like Passover, Independence Day, and other celebrations of freedom — is a day for reminding ourselves, and teaching our children, that our present happy circumstances are not the mere result of good luck, but instead the result of right thinking. As Holmes explained in his 1884 Memorial Day speech:
"So to the indifferent inquirer who asks why Memorial Day is still kept up we may answer, it celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith. It embodies in the most impressive form our belief that to act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly. To fight out a war, you must believe something and want something with all your might. So must you do to carry anything else to an end worth reaching. More than that, you must be willing to commit yourself to a course, perhaps a long and hard one, without being able to foresee exactly where you will come out. All that is required of you is that you should go somewhither as hard as ever you can. The rest belongs to fate. One may fall-at the beginning of the charge or at the top of the earthworks; but in no other way can he reach the rewards of victory."