There are 260,000 graves in Arlington National Cemetery. This weekend each one of them has an American flag on its headstone, placed there by soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry. Today is Memorial Day, the day on which we traditionally honor the men and women who died in military service.
In 1971 Memorial Day was officially relocated to a Monday, providing a three-day holiday weekend. While Americans appreciate the opportunity to spend time away from work, perhaps enjoying a traditional barbeque with friends and families, the deeper meaning of the holiday has receded in importance. According to surveys, many people today do not even know the exact meaning of Memorial Day.
To help remind Americans of the real significance of Memorial Day, Congress in 2000 passed the “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution. This resolution suggests that at 3 p.m. local time, Americans “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’.”
Since the U.S. declared independence from England, we’ve been engaged in 25 military conflicts, resulting in 1.3 million deaths of service members. Around 6440 American military personnel have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and well over 48,000 have been wounded. War is a tragedy human beings keep repeating; it would be nice to think that one day we as a species may progress beyond killing each other. And, of course, we Americans are not alone in bearing the human toll of war. Governments do not publish numbers of casualties other than their own military losses, but we know civilian casualties have been high in both wars. Our allies and our adversaries have also suffered great losses. The pain of bereaved families spreads around the world.
Whatever our feelings about the necessity of any particular war, or the political underpinnings of our current conflicts, I believe it is important to remember that each person who gave his or her life died in dedication to our treasured American ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Whether drafted or enlisted, each of them pushed through the fear of being at war, and willingly did his or her job in service to the rest of us.
So today at 3 p.m., let’s put down our paper plates for just a moment, and honor their lives.
(This article originally appeared in 2011. It is being republished at the request of readers.The casualty numbers have changed. Last year there were 4500 American service members dead and approximately 40,000 wounded.)