Today we honor our war dead - from the Revolutionary War minutemen who helped win our freedom all the way up to our present day heroes, who help us keep it. Freedom isn't free, and those brave men and women who gave the greatest measure of devotion to their country have paid the ultimate price for the rest of us.
The Memorial Day tradition was begun during the Civil War, when women would take it upon themselves to decorate the graves of the fallen to honor their sacrifice. In 1868, General John Logan, in his General Order #11, created an official day of remembrance for our Civil War dead. With the advent of WWI and WWII, the observance was expanded to include all war dead, and the date was made official in 1971 when Congress passed the National Holiday Act, making the day a federal holiday (and a three-day weekend).
In 1915 Moina Michaels wrote a poem about remembering those who died in war:
We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.
She started a tradition of wearing red poppies to commemorate the Memorial Day. She sold poppies to friends and co-workers and donated the money to servicemen in need. The idea was picked up by a visiting Frenchwoman who took the tradition back home to France, where it spread throughout Europe. In fact, Europeans have managed to cling to that tradition far better than the Americans who started it.
If you would like to make some poppies for your Memorial Day observances, here's how.
Unfortunately this country seems to have forgotten the meaning of Memorial Day. It seems the purpose has been lost, and many Americans think it is a day to remember all of our dead, not just those lost in war. Or, even worse, it is just the official start of summer and the first day of barbeque season. Our reverence for those who have fallen in service to their country has dimmed over the decades, starting with our nearly forgotten Korean conflict. Observances really started to wane during the Vietnam war era, when it was much easier for radicals to blame drafted soldiers for the violence than the democratic leadership that ramped up operations in the first place. In fact, the day had so lost its meaning that Congress passed the "National Moment of Remembrance" resolution in 2000, which calls for all Americans to offer a moment of silence at 3pm on Memorial Day to honor our war dead.
Just last year, Arlington National Cemetery was embroiled in a scandal that illustrated how low we have fallen as a nation when it comes to proper reverence for our fallen military. In response to that scandal, a seventeen year old patriot in Virginia, Ricky Gilleland, has taken it upon himself to create a database with photos of the graves of those killed since 9/11 at Arlington, so relatives can 'visit' the grave sites of their loved ones whenever they wish. He started it with $200 of his own money and countless hours wandering through Lot 60 at Arlington, photographing graves and posting them on his website, preserveandhonor.com. Patriots like Gilleland remind us that honoring our dead is necessary to remind us of just how precious our freedom is, and what a great price we have paid for it as a nation.
So at 3pm today, take a moment to reflect on this great country and those who died to make it so. The roots of the Tree of Liberty have been watered with the blood of patriots, and it is our duty, not just to them but to ourselves, to ensure their sacrifice wasn't in vain and is remembered throughout the ages.