Memorial Day is, for me, an unsettling experience — not because Americans are unwilling to commemorate those who died in combat. If anything, sacraments to honor the military have become a little too fashionable over the past 15years. But as endless war remains constant, I find myself troubled by the thoughtlessness surrounding such rituals.
After the Civil War, what we now call Memorial Day originated as Decoration Day. On April 25, 1866, Confederate widows in Columbus, Miss., gathered to memorialize the dead of both the Blue and the Gray. Two weeks later, without any knowledge of the Southern ceremony, the citizens of Waterloo, N.Y., organized a similar occasion. By 1868, enough annual events had emerged in the North and South that President James A. Garfield presided over an Arlington National Cemetery ceremony to honor more than 20,000 soldiers.
On both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, the emphasis was not only on honoring the 215,000 soldiers who died; it was, more significantly, a rite of reconciliation for the living. By adorning headstones from both sides, Decoration Day reminded Americans that the enemies who had previously been hated and feared were now, and would forever remain, part of their common humanity. Each time a daisy, rose or wildflower was placed on a grave, it was done to alleviate animosity and to affirm affection.
Let’s consider this in a 21st-century context. Imagine if those who lost loved ones during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks paid respects to Afghans, Pakistanis, Syrians, Iraqis and Yemenis targeted in drone strikes. Picture CNN, Fox News or MSNBC broadcasting live updates from Texas State Cemetery in Austin, as Osama bin Laden’s relatives placed a wreath next to “American Sniper” Chris Kyle’s headstone.