Memorial Day: Words Fail, But Memory Endures

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In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved, and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

— Lt.-Col. John McCrae (1872 - 1918)

The sun shone. The breeze blew. The bright orange poppies trembled. The children laughed. The smell of bacon and flapjacks lured teenagers out of their beds. Thousands of people in Rim Country greeted Memorial Day with the joy reserved for three-day weekends in perfect weather.

But down at the Veterans Memorial at Green Valley Park, perhaps 500 people observed the morning properly — with memories and love for the more than 1 million Americans who have died in defense of their country, including the 4,301 who have died in Iraq and the 1,306 who have died in Afghanistan.

Hardly anyone got through that sun-dappled service without tears — not even the speakers.

Pity the speakers at such a moment. What can anyone say that measures up to the enormity of those deaths — that sacrifice? What can anyone say to the families, left behind? How can anyone make sense of the willingness of so many to give up everything for love of country — and the other soldier in the foxhole?

Still, we make our small efforts, picking at the edge of the thing.

So Lt. Col. John McCrae felt compelled to write down the words of Flanders fields after watching his friend Lt. Alexis Helmer die on that battlefield in 1915. Vexed that he could not do justice to so great a loss, McCrae tore the page out of his notebook and tossed it aside. Fortunately, another officer retrieved the page.

The national day of mourning dates back to the Civil War, likely starting when liberated slaves in Charleston, N.C. exhumed a mass grave of the Union soldiers who’d died in a Confederate prison camp and reburied them with honors. Some 10,000 people — mostly black — gathered to honor those dead, widely considered the first “Decoration Day.”

It is fitting that the day to recall the dead started after the Civil War, when the toll accounted for a stunning 2 percent of the population. No other war comes close — with the Revolutionary War accounting for not quite 1 percent and World War II’s tally accounting for just one-third of 1 percent of the population.

Many southern states held their own celebrations annually to remember their war dead and Decoration Day did not become the true national day of mourning until after World War II, when the shared grief finally outweighed those bitter divisions. The holiday wasn’t officially named Memorial Day by federal law until 1967 — then moved from the traditional May 30 to a flexible schedule that assured a three-day weekend to kick off the summer season.

Now, we mostly barbecue and gather the family, hike through the woods and splash up the creek — celebrating those simple joys that so many paid so terrible a price to secure.

But still, the poppies blow in Flanders fields and Gettysburg and Normandy and Baghdad and the plains of Afghanistan. And still we grope for the words, crumple them up, toss them aside — then stoop again to read them, knowing it is not enough, never enough, but the best we can do.

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