Memorial Day

The United States itself is a
monument to America’s war dead

Those we honor on Memorial Day for the most part died wanting nothing so much as to protect their children and families, and to leave them a better world. As we remember their sacrifice, perhaps we should also rejoice at how well they succeeded.

Memorial Day grew out of the Civil War practice of placing flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers, and for long enough to be considered a tradition, it was observed on May 30. Since 1971, Memorial Day has been celebrated on the last Monday in May, which means it can come as early as May 25. That rankles some who remember the “real” date, but the three-day weekend the Monday arrangement provides is in keeping with the holiday.

But before enjoying the holiday, take time to remember those who gave so much. Memorial Day services are scheduled for 10 a.m. today at the Vietnam Memorial near River City Hall and at 11 a.m. at the Durango Veterans Memorial near the entrance to Greenmount Cemetery. After that, a wreath will be dropped into the Animas River off the Ninth Street bridge at 11:45 a.m.

Remember also how much we owe those who gave their all. They left us with a lot to enjoy and even more reason to be thankful.

Outside the military, few living Americans have known war firsthand. Except for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and that nation’s subsequent seizure of part of the Aleutian Islands – neither of which were then part of the United States proper – foreign troops have not invaded U.S. soil in more than a century. The last war that directly threatened American freedom ended almost 70 years ago. Even the nuclear threat of the Cold War is receding from memory.

The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have certainly touched far too many Americans. And veterans of those wars have still to see the support and aid they deserve. But as a percentage of the population, particularly compared to past generations’ wars, their numbers are small.

Meanwhile, we have expanded our freedom. Even faced with the ongoing threat of terrorism, Americans – particularly women and minorities – now enjoy more personal liberty than ever before. In the time since World War II, we have eliminated legal discrimination, broadened opportunities for employment and education, and expanded voting rights – all while preserving our free-enterprise system and the individual liberty it allows. As a people, we have never been so free.

Even our politics reinforce that. Last year, American voters re-elected the country’s first black president – a man whose skin color and African name largely went unnoticed in a contest that rightly focused primarily on issues and policies. And it is widely assumed that a woman is a front-runner to succeed him. That, too, is no longer considered remarkable. For all its flaws, this is a healthy democracy.

Moreover, we have the resources to enjoy our freedom. There is much to be concerned about in today’s economy, including a persistently high rate of unemployment and overall sluggish growth.

But to a soldier going to war in 1942, steeped in the pandemic poverty of the Great Depression, the America of today would seem wealthy beyond comprehension. What he may not recognize, however, is that our good fortune is largely the product of his sacrifice.

It is up to us to remember that. Memorial Day exists as much to remind the living as to honor the dead. The real monument to those who gave their lives defending the United States is the nation they bequeathed to us. America is their memorial.

That makes today a fitting time to enjoy it.