|'Mourning Victory,' relief sculpture in marble by the Piccirilli Brothers; copy of a bronze original by Daniel Chester French (1850–1931), creator (inter alia) of the Pulitzer Prize medal and of the famous seated statue of Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. French's bronze memorial was commissioned by James C. Melvin of Boston to commemorate his three brothers who had died in the Civil War. [Photo credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; special thanks to Liz Richey Beck for drawing it to my attention.]|
i am old enough to remember this day being called, by my grandparents if not my parents, 'decoration day.' they had probably learnt the term from survivors of the american civil war; wikipedia notes that the celebration of decoration day was 'a tradition initiated by former slaves to celebrate emancipation and commemorate those who died to end slavery in the United States,' and this article [and this one] give additional interesting information about that.
i think i also recall, from my long-ago salad days, having heard someone refer to it as 'flag day,' probably in reference to the once-ubiquitous display of american flags that we would see on this day. as nomenclature errors go, this is a bit complex, because Flag Day [capital letters] is 14 june, and commemorates the adoption of the stars & stripes as the american flag in 1777 [again it is wikipedia that advises us that the 'flag resolution' by the continental congress of that year 'was most probably meant to define a naval ensign,' not yet a national flag per se; see also this interesting page]; but there is also the little-known term 'flag day' [lower-case letters] which refers to any official holiday on which the flag is to be flown [such as independence day, 4 july].
i was getting ready to post, on facebook, a commemoration of my father, who served in WW2 in the US armed forces. but then i saw -- on the FB thread of a friend's friend -- this comment:
it is undeniably true that we have a different day set aside to honor all those who have served, living or dead -- namely veterans' day [11 november]. in my 'tidy mind' mode i appreciate that, and the distinction between memorial day and veterans' day. we also have an honor, if not a national holiday, specifically for those wounded in combat who nonetheless survived: namely, the purple heart. my uncle george, who i believe was at the battle of the bulge, won one or two of those in WW2.
but my first thought, on reading that 'picky' comment, was of a rather larger scope: 'why are we so stingy in thanking those who serve in our armed forces?'
now my father's own case lies somewhere in between the honoring of those fallen in combat and the honoring of all veterans: he was a veteran of WW2 who did survive the war, but he is now deceased. so a 'memorial day' seemed at first to be a supremely appropriate time to commemorate him. but by the strictest criterion, memorial day is not a holiday dedicated to him. [of course i remember and commemorate him, and my mother, not just today but every day, and for many other things besides service to their country; but that is rather a different matter.]
in any case, it is fitting to remember [as such] those fallen in combat, and not to diminish their moment in the spotlight. but when you see a comic like this one -- linked-to by another friend on FB, from MUTTS!, one of my favorite comic strips -- how can you help but feel a sense of propriety? for one thing, commemoration one day a year seems little recompense for such total sacrifice. and for another, there is a communion of veterans that is like nothing else: those [wounded or not] who have served in the armed forces understand more intimately than anyone else can what it meant for those who did fall in combat to do so. in thanking and honoring warriors who are still living, we give them the chance to serve in a sense as metonyms for those who did not survive combat. they are in a very intimate way our living link to the dead.
abraham lincoln signaled some awareness of this when he said of the soldiers' national cemetery in gettysburg,
obviously he, and his audience, were engaged in the commemoration of the dead. the speech was delivered in a very cemetery. but he saw the link that joined the quick and the dead in this case, and he did not forbear to emphasize it. my dear friend nina barclay also posted [on facebook today] a comment that, i think, explains beautifully and eloquently why it is appropriate to honor on this day, not just those who died for us in battle, but all those who serve or have served [and i quote gratefully with the permission of the author]:
certainly the word 'memorial' can imply commemoration of the dead. but its first definition is 'of or relating to memory,' or [as merriam-webster has it] 'serving to preserve remembrance.' something to make you remember, to help you not forget. i loved and honored my father, as i still do, but i don't think i ever thought to thank him explicitly for having served in the armed forces while he was alive. what would i give for the chance to do so now?
so yes. remember. do not forget. and say thank you, to the living and the dead. to the living particularly, because you can still do so while you look into their living eyes.