Memorial Day is about flags, flags where they are not usually flown, on front porches and next to gravestones. Especially next to gravestones, which mark those who gave their lives while serving in the military.
Decoration Day preceded, and overlapped, Memorial Day, as flags and flowers originally decorated the graves.
Thus it was when Civil War Gen. James A Garfield, a Republican Congressman from Ohio who would become president, was the primary speaker at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington on May 30, 1868.
“I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion,” Garfield said. “If silence is ever golden, it must be beside the graves of fifteen thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem the music of which can never be sung.”
The graves of both Northern and Southern soldiers were decorated with equal respect. And, as we know, Arlington National Cemetery was located on the plantation that had been owned by Robert E. Lee’s wife’s family. North and South were intertwined during a war that resulted in the deaths of more than 600,000 soldiers.
While the scale of warfare has changed since Vietnam with technology replacing, to a large degree, rifle-carrying flesh and blood – resulting in a much smaller number of American fatalities – each fallen soldier is one too many. Life is ended too soon and the family and friends they leave behind never forget.
American forces are leaving Afghanistan after 20 years; did their presence give the citizens of that country an appreciation, even ever so slight, of the potential that women bring, and what life can be like without the extremism that tribes and religions can impart? We would like to think it did. Many American lives were lost in that venture.
The presence of American military gives authoritarian governments pause, whether on the Korean peninsula, in the western Pacific, in Europe facing Russia, or in small units in Africa. We can expect that need to continue, but shift in size and scope. The threat of force deters some rulers and always will, and that puts the American military in danger.
Notice the flags flying this weekend, and at 3 p.m. Monday, stop what you are doing for a minute – just a minute – to remember those who have given their lives. That is the National Moment of Remembrance encouraged by a federal commission.
A minute is a small gift in memory of those who served and died.