Memorial Day and Veterans Day: Confused? Time to sort it out

Now that Facebook and television talking heads are done with Memorial Day I’m thinking it’s OK to spin off a mini-rant. Let’s start with this: Memorial Day and Veterans Day are not the same thing. Ditto the Fourth of July, which, along with the other two, is morphing into a “we love folks in uniform” trifecta.

Memorial Day, which until World War I, was known as Decoration Day is about dead people. Veterans Day, which was known as Armistice Day until 1954,  is about living people.  Please tell me you know the Fourth of July is about a political, philosophical and cultural cataclysm that rid Americans of kings and queens — until, of course, the advent of the likes of the Koch Brothers and Rupert Murdock.

Get it? On Memorial Day we honor the men and women who lost their lives in a war while serving in the military. On Veterans Day, we honor the men and women who serve in the armed forces — and are not dead. On July 4, we’re supposed to be celebrating the birth of a nation, which, the last time I checked required more than shooting guns and dumping tea into Boston Harbor.

Does it matter that as an American consciousness we have so little understanding of the context and histories of the three holidays?  I think it does, though I’m perfectly willing to admit that most folks don’t give two tinker’s dams as long as it’s a day off work, the barbecue grill’s hot and the adult beverages cold.

It matters because we don’t know our history. It matters because when three holidays morph into one, we dilute the purposes of each. It matters because we’re trading historical context for “thanks for your service” drive-by accolades with little more feeling than a retail clerk’s perfunctory “have a nice day.”

And, it matters because we have allowed our collective Vietnam guilt to goad us into mindless “celebration” of military service. Back in the olden days of the late 1960s and 1970s, a soldier walking through an airport would have been fortunate not to have been spit on. We know now that was stupidly, ignorantly and arrogantly wrong, so we’ve spent the past three decades trying to make up. Hence, the increasingly hollow “thanks for your service” thing and the burgeoning trifecta mash-up.

Perhaps we should return to the original names. Decoration Day to lay a flower or a flag on the graves of those who died in battle. Then maybe we would understand the awesome costs of taking up arms, of sending our children to their deaths for our cause. Armistice Day to celebrate the return to peace after years of war and to thank those who made it happen, whether in battle, at a desk or in a back room. Then, maybe we would understand that finding and keeping the peace demands service from each of us, our uniforms not withstanding.

If we did that, then perhaps we could celebrate the Fourth of July with the knowledge that our young and fragile country requires more of us than a drive-by thank you.



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