Remembering Memorial Day

EssoyesSquareCombatants

The French do not forget.

What do we remember on Memorial Day? Do we remember the lives that have been sacrificed in service to our country? Or do we remember the Memorial Day sales? Or do we think of it just as a three-day start to the summer ahead, and a great day for a barbecue?

How can we restore meaning to this national holiday?

I am currently in a little village in France, and in France they do not forget their war dead. The carnage of World Wars I and II left France devastated, a legacy of loss still very much in living memory, one that would be hard to forget. Every little French village has a war memorial, and the number of names etched upon these memorials, especially from the First World War, even in the tiniest towns, is sobering.

The French do not forget the millions of French lives lost in recent wars, nor do they forget those who helped them to win those wars. In the little village where I live, there were solemn, respectful ceremonies on both Armistice Day (which marks the end of World War I, in November), and on May 8, when V-E Day is remembered in France. On May 8, a small and stately parade of villagers met at the mairie and proceeded to the war memorial next to the church. There they laid flowers, played taps, read a proclamation from the Minister of Defense. As I struggled to follow the meaning of the words, among the phrases that stood out to me was one expressing gratitude for sacrifice made by the citizens of nineteen countries–nineteen!–who gave their lives in the struggle for France to win back its freedom in 1945.

They don’t forget in England, either, how could they? In both World Wars, before the U.S. joined the war effort, many thousands of British lives were lost in France.

In the U.S., Memorial Day used to be called Decoration Day, because it was a day when families and friends decorated the graves of the loved ones they had lost through war. In the U.K., the analogous day of commemoration is called Remembrance Day. Perhaps that is a better name. Perhaps it would be harder to forget the real meaning of the day if it were called Remembrance Day.

As Memorial Day approaches I hope we will remember American lives lost in past wars. But I hope we will also begin to think of ourselves more as part of a global community, just one nation among many on this earth. It is the only way we will ever find our way to peace, that seems pretty clear. It seems pretty clear that good people everywhere have to work together to stop bad people from doing harm. Preferably sooner rather than later. That is one of the lessons handed to us through history.

In 1994, usmemorialday.org was established to help remind Americans of the meaning and intent of Memorial Day. And in years past we have published posts here and here, offering ideas for a few ways to make Memorial Day more meaningful.

Here’s one of those ideas, right here: if, in your downsizing, or moving, or spring cleaning, you come across some old war letters, we hope you will consider donating them to the newly established Center for American War Letters, so that the history of war, as seen from the point of view of individual soldiers, and their loved ones, may be preserved.

Is it too much to hope that future generations may learn from the bitter lessons of the past not how to fight better wars, but perhaps a way to end them?

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

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