Memorial Day in Washington, D.C., is a remarkably lively and even noisy day given its commemorative nature.
Arising after the Civil War from Decoration Day, it is meant to honor those men and women who have fallen in the service of their country. We’ll see an outburst of activity at cemeteries around the country, from the largest cities to the smallest towns, not to mention at Arlington National Cemetery, where an annual wreath-laying ceremony is held (this year preceded by a ceremony marking the JFK centennial).
In D.C., there’ll be the big parade, complete with marchers dressed as members of the American military in all of its conflicts. There’ll be the big concert broadcast by PBS from the west lawn of the Capitol on Sunday and the Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Rally rolling through the Friday before on behalf of POWs and MIAs.
Yet the thought of Memorial Day would also seem to have another effect. It is a time for silence and remembering and mulling over what the commemoration means. We are, after all, a nation born in war — whether you wish to call it revolution or not.
You might think that, for so young a country, we may have fought entirely too many wars, that the men and women we remember constitute a large part of our national human treasure.
You might think that the military and its leaders occupy a large spot in our minds. Quite a few of them at some point in their service start thinking about the presidency as a career move.
General George Washington did not have to choose; he was asked. But, for many years, after wars, a good number of our presidents and would-be president came from the ranks of the military: William Henry Harrison, the victor over Tecumseh who did not long survive a too-long inaugural speech in the rain; Andrew Jackson, a favorite hero of our current president; Ulysses S. Grant, who showed that military skills might not always translate well to politics; John Garfield, who was assassinated; Theodore Roosevelt, who was a Rough Rider. Even Lincoln served in the militia at one time.
We were spared the imperious ambitions of Douglas MacArthur, but did get Dwight David Eisenhower, the great coordinator of the Allied invasion of Europe, who at the end of his presidency warned us about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. Of late, service in the military has not accounted for much. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump didn’t serve, though opponents called them out on it.
The Americans we remember on Memorial Day did serve, to the last full measure. With music, with speeches, with noise or silent thought, the day is theirs.