In Defense of "Happy Memorial Day"
May 27, 2019 11:26 am
Today is Memorial Day in the United States, a day where we remember those who gave their lives in defense of our nation. The goal of this day, from its inception, is to remember and honor those who earned the freedom we continue to enjoy. I’ve written about it before, but it’s been 12 years.
Thankfully, our current cultural zeitgeist recognizes and honors military service, possibly to a bit of excess, as a reaction to the anti-military sentiment prevalent throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Invariably, whenever I am out and about in a civilian establishment (grocery store, restaurant, etc.) and in uniform, I will be thanked for my service. I used to feel self-conscious about that, as I’ve spent very little time in a combat zone; however, I realized that every job is significant, and I’m still on call, so I began to simply reply “You’re welcome; happy to do it.” In this spirit, many people make a special effort to say “thank you for your service” on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, as well as other military-related holidays, such as Armed Forces Day (which is actually the day set aside for that, the third Saturday of May), V-J Day, Pearl Harbor Day, and the like.
However - Memorial Day is set aside to remember those who gave their lives in defense of our nation, not just those who have worn or currently wear the uniform. Within the military, honor of these individuals is high; many of our military installations, and the roads within them, are named in honor of these brave warriors who gave their lives on the battlefield, or those who were killed in the line of duty at home. (It happens more frequently than many realize.) And, the last thing those of us who “fly a desk” want to do is, in any way, siphon off honor for those who gave their all for this land.
The past several years, though, have gotten more contentious around these holidays. People are correcting, and sometimes near-berating, those who dare to thank currently military members on Memorial Day. Possibly, some of these people’s hearts are in the right place; I’m not critiquing motivation, just technique. I find this to be the worst possible way of honoring military sacrifice. I also see that the majority of people who do this have never once served a day in any branch of the armed forces. Y’all - stop it. If we’re strong enough, courageous enough, and dedicated enough to defend our nation, you can trust us to defend the honor of our fallen comrades.
Into that mix, enter those who, in the spirit of togetherness and camaraderie, like to wish everyone a “Happy [insert holiday here]”. If we thought “thank you for your service” set these defenders off, “Happy Memorial Day” sends them into orbit. However, if we stop to think about how those whom we honor on this day would want us to go about our day today, I don’t think scolding people on the Internet would be an activity. An acquaintance on Facebook posted this in reply to someone who had been on the receiving end of such scolding, and it is more poignant and eloquent than I could express. (shared with permission, names changed)
Many years ago, I was at a Memorial Day cookout at a friend’s beach house. There were probably 50 of us there, grilling ribs and burgers, eating oysters, drinking beer and wine coolers, and just enjoying being together. We’d played volleyball, gotten sunburned, gone swimming, and done all the things you would normally do at the beach with a big group of friends.
A girl I didn’t know, wearing a t-shirt with a big, yellow ribbon on it, got there around sunset and said, “Hi! Happy Memorial Day!” She then turned to a group of about 10 guys who were obviously active duty and said, “Happy Memorial Day! Thank you for your service!” It clearly bothered another guy who was there, (who I later found out had no military affiliation whatsoever, himself OR family members), because he proceeded to loudly lecture her about how “Memorial Day is NOT a day to be HAPPY and it’s NOT the day to thank the servicemen who are ALIVE; it’s for the dead ones, and shouldn’t be a big party…” Needless to say, when he was finished, you could’ve heard a pin drop.
Then one of the active duty guys, a young Marine officer, said, “Sir. You’re wrong. It IS a day to be happy. It IS a day to thank those who are willing to go tomorrow or even today and lay their lives down for the rest of us. They might be one of ‘the dead ones’ when next year’s Memorial Day rolls 'round. And, every serviceman I know who lost his life fighting for this country loved a good party, no matter how bad the situation outside the gate was. I leave on Thursday to go back to Kuwait for my second tour, and if I don’t come home this time, do NOT make my life and my decision to risk it have been in vain by telling people that they can not have fun, be happy, and celebrate in my honor. I only want ONE funeral if I don’t come back. I don’t want a funeral every single year on Memorial Day. Instead, drink a beer and say, ‘Bob, this one is for you,’ then turn and thank a LIVING, young serviceman for picking up where I left off and being willing to die for you, simply because he loves his country. Then, be happy and celebrate the freedoms that you have. THAT, my friends, is what Memorial Day is SUPPOSED to be.”
Less than a year later, I went to his funeral and then to a memorial service so well-attended that it had to be held outside on the beach. And, every Memorial Day since, I raise my glass (whether it’s a beer, a wine cooler, a Mt. Dew, or a lemonade) and say, “This one’s for you, Bob.” And, then I thank a young member of our military for picking up where Pat left off, and I DO wish everyone a happy Memorial Day. Not because I don’t have respect for those who gave their lives and not because I don’t understand the meaning of Memorial Day, but exactly the opposite. Thank you to all who serve and selflessly risk everything for the rest of us!
Memorial Day is a day to honor those who have given their lives for our nation. As they come into our memory (literally the origin of the first word of the holiday), we should honor them. This should inspire a few emotions (none of which are sour-faced scolding):
- Gratitude - Above all, honoring their sacrifice should inspire gratitude. By virtue of the timing of our birth, no one reading this had the opportunity to risk their life in any of the armed conflicts in which our nation has fought, up to and including “The Great War” (AKA World War I). We should be grateful to those who fought, and died, in those conflicts.
- Motivation - The gratitude of the memory should motivate us. For some, that motivation is reflected in a similar method of service, in direct defense of our nation. For some, that motivation is reflected in the desire to thank those who are continuing to put themselves in harm’s way for the rest of us. Forgive the bluntness, but it’s really hard to thank a dead guy; it’s much easier to thank those who are currently on his team. For all of us, though, that motivation should work itself out in living in a way that would make those who made that sacrifice proud. That doesn’t equate to a political party, nor a demand for military discounts, but working for a nation where the (peaceful) battle of ideas can play out, as government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” evolves.
- Celebration - No one who risks their life in defense of the nation actually wants to lose it, and we should not “pop the cork” every time we hear about a servicemember losing their life. At the same time, though, our government has set aside a national holiday to honor these people, and 99+% of them would want us to enjoy that. They and their families know, much more acutely than the rest of us, that time is precious. Spend it with family, go have fun somewhere, take advantage of it! Remember who made it possible, for sure, but enjoy.
So, all that being said - Happy Memorial Day to you.