Memorial Day weekend a time to honor war dead by celebrating life

Posted: Monday, May 31, 2010

Of all our American holidays, Memorial Day is perhaps the most contradictory. In tourist communities like Homer, the Memorial Day weekend is considered the traditional start of the season. On the Homer Spit and all over the Kenai Peninsula, shops and cafes closed since Labor Day reopen. We'll fire up the barbecues, fish for salmon and get our gardens in. We'll celebrate warm days and the end of a bitter winter.

The last Monday in May more somberly honors America's war dead. Memorial Day's origins as a national holiday began with tributes held each spring after the Civil War by Confederate women's groups. In April 1866, women in Columbus, Miss., decorated the graves of Confederate soldiers killed at the battle of Shiloh -- and then decorated Union graves when the bareness so disturbed them. Later, in May 1868, the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans, established Decoration Day, and put flowers on the graves of Union and Confederate dead buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1971, Congress established the last Monday in May as Memorial Day. In 2000, Congress passed the "National Moment of Remembrance" resolution urging all Americans at 3 p.m. Memorial Day "to voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to 'Taps.'"

War has taken on a different character since the events of Sept. 11, 2001. As America enters its ninth year of war in Afghanistan, soldiers and Marines still engage the enemy directly, as their fathers and grandfathers did in Vietnam and World War II, but the nature of the war isn't as clear cut. As Sept. 11 showed, the battlefield can be lower Manhattan, Washington, D.C., and the skies above Pennsylvania, its soldiers police and firefighters, even brave airline passengers, like those of United Flight 93.

Some have started to call this war the Long War, a war seemingly without end. It is not a war against terrorism, but a war against those who use terrorism as a tactic. Service members protect us, but so do obscure intelligence agents and special forces operatives. Our enemies can be fellow citizens disaffected with America. Our heroes can be common men and women, alert citizens like the two New York street vendors who saw smoke coming from a car in Times Square and helped stop a car bomb from killing hundreds.

When America's enemies strike in our heartland, any of us can be victims. That we go on with our daily lives is heroic. That we do not fear to gather in crowds, ride subways and hold picnics in parks on a fine summer weekend is proof that our enemies have not defeated us. They want us to be afraid and we are not.

America's war dead would want us to celebrate life. They would want us to find joy in all we do. In the Long War, we all can be heroes by celebrating life -- by celebrating freedom, justice and religious tolerance. On Monday we should honor our war dead in ceremonies. The flags flying above graves in our cemeteries remind us of sacrifice and bravery. In the Long War, it is a sacrifice and bravery shared by all.

-- Homer News, May 27

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