When Americans first began celebrating the precursor to Memorial Day, it was a divisive occasion. Decoration Day was proclaimed to honor fallen soldiers of the Union Army; it specifically excluded Confederate war dead, and it was thus shunned across the states of the American South, which created their own days to honor their own servicemen. This distinction persisted for decades.
By 1913, however, nationalism was on the rise, and in the trenches of the First World War, the divisions of North and South gave way to a common American identity. These divisions were further eroded by the Second World War, after which the name "Memorial Day" (which had always existed as a secondary reference) became increasingly popular.
Since its earliest moments, Declaration Day had been celebrated on May 30 precisely because it was not the day of any battle in American history. Memorial Day inherited this distinction. In 1967, however, Congress enacted a change that shifted the observed dates of holidays to create three-day weekends. Beginning in 1971, Memorial Day changed from May 30 to the last Monday in May. This change, coming as it did in the waning years of the Vietnam War, had a huge impact on the observation of Memorial Day as a holiday for civic duty and sacrifice. For all of my lifetime, it has been a day associated more with hot dogs and beach trips than with bunting and solemn observance.
The erosion of deference to Memorial Day is often pitched as a partisan shift, the work of liberals who had no respect for "the troops," predictably contrasted with good conservative America that always supported our "heroes in uniform." This is not the case.
Conservatives do love to talk about military service with puffed chests and bravado, but do a quick poll and you'll find that the number of Congressional Republicans with sons or daughters in the military is only slightly higher than the number of Congressional Democrats with sons or daughters in the military: very few. Similarly, survey the legislators themselves, and you will find few of either party under 50 years old who have served in uniform.
The fact is, liberals and conservatives have come together from opposite viewpoints to accomplish the dismantling of meaningful support for the American military in favor of talking points. Our greatest accomplishments as a nation came from a model of shared sacrifice, something that we did together. Today, there is a tone from leaders and pundits of both parties that military service is something that someone else does.
The volunteer military seems at first glance to be a great idea, but it represents a seismic shift from the principles of duty, honor, and country to instead seeing military service as a job. Soldiers of the Second World War served not because they wanted to but because their country needed them to. This model continued into Vietnam, and while it is true that we did not "win" the Vietnam War -- the reasons for which are complicated and have a lot to do with shifting definitions of victory, a problem that still plagues the United States today in Afghanistan -- we nonetheless felt the pain of that conflict as a nation.
In the Vietnam era, few people did not know someone who had served. The draft was unpopular but effective in spreading the sacrifice of war; particularly with the institution of the National Lottery and the abolition of deferments (exploited by so many who would later rise to be conservative war-hawks), it became a scrupulously fair way for a nation to wage war. Indeed, even the widespread protests were themselves a manifestation of the value of the draft, making it clear to political leaders that the war they were pursuing was not a war that the country wanted to fight. When we dismantled the draft in favor of creating a professional standing military, tore at the fabric that bound us together.
Today, relatively few of us know someone who serves in uniform. The sons and daughters of the privileged, conservative and liberal alike, give barely a passing thought to enlistment or seeking a commission even though we have been at war for an entire decade. They have better things to do; wars are fought by "other people," while they make piles of money and agitate in political circles for or against conflicts that commit to life and death the handful who still hold to ideals of duty.
This change has huge implications for America. For one thing, as the legacy of Decoration Day shows us, people who bleed together are hard-pressed to retain petty political divisions on the basis of talking points. Another downside is simple attrition: someone who survived a tour in Vietnam was done, while today we send the troops back for tour after tour, rolling the dice again and again. There is none of the pressure on politicians to have a plan, strategy, or goal; there are no vast protests against clueless leadership of either party, because in the end, someone else is bearing the cost.
Does it strike any of you as strange that in a time of record deficits, when we are told that the very existence of our nation is at stake in a never-ending war on terrorism, no legislation has emerged under Republican or Democratic leadership calling for the imposition of a war tax to pay the cost of our endless military campaigns?
And are we supposed to believe that the money will continue flowing to provide the education, health care, and retirement benefits promised to our men and women in uniform when every other aspect of government activity is considered to be a "spending problem" to be solved with a budget ax?
There are many, many people -- including a lot who hold high office -- eager to pose for photographs with "the troops." People left, right, and center display cheap, Chinese-made yellow ribbon magnets on their cars, and rarely do I meet someone who says that he or she does not "support" the troops. But few of us actually do anything.
We need to change that. For starters, go to www.anysoldier.com and send a care package to someone who's fighting your war for you. Go to www.uso.org and look for a way to help -- maybe make a donation to help fund the airport lounges where our men and women in uniform can stop for coffee or a quick snack while in transit to and from war zones. Call your local VFW or American Legion and ask about being at the airport to greet troops coming home.
But do more than that. Think about ways that you can serve, or talk to your own children about military service. If your son or daughter expresses interest in meeting with a recruiter, don't dissuade him or her. Military service is a legacy fulfilled by many Americans who have come before you, and the ideals of duty, honor, and country that it conveys represent the best our nation has to offer.
"The troops" are us; support America.
Happy Memorial Day.