Sunday, May 27, 2007

Memorial Day

I can't think of a major US holiday more drained of meaning than Memorial Day. As commercialized as Christmas has become, most Americans still know its origins. Meanwhile, Memorial Day has become a three-day weekend, with a whiff of military history thrown in that few Americans can tell you about.

Memorial Day grew out of the American Civil War, as was first recognized in 1868. By 1890, all the northern states recognized it as a day to remember and honor the Civil War war dead, north and south. The southern states stubbornly held their own remembrance day until after World War One, when the holiday officially honored all of America's war dead.

Originally, Memorial Day was always on May 30. It was changed to the last Monday of May when Congress passed the Uniform Holiday Act of 1971.

I would argue that Memorial Day is our most important federal holiday. Thanksgiving is a celebration of revisionist history. Christmas is a state-sponsored marketing tool. Labor Day is a redundancy - don't we already get days off from work?

But Memorial Day gives us pause to reflect on our species' worst instints, and that is important in times such as these. When our own government tries to ban photographs of flag-draped coffins, and media propagandists attack news outlets for reading the names of our war dead, we can at least turn to Memorial Day to remind ourselves about some awful truths.

And we can listen to men like Kenneth Rice, an 86-year-old Michigan man, who was held prisoner by the Japanese for three terrible years:
Over the weeks, Nichols Field's detail shrunk to 135 men as prisoners died or were transferred because of illness. That's how Rice escaped Pete's tyranny.

The Japanese sent the Marine, ailing with appendicitis, back to Cabanatuan after two months. There, doctors removed his appendix without giving him an anesthetic.

Six months later, the Japanese reinserted him into the labor force, sending him to his longest and last destination.

Read the whole story.

The best antidote to the sound of trumpets is a strong dose of reality. That's what Memorial Day is all about.

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