We honor our military servicemen with two holidays — one for the living and one for the dead. November 11 is Veteran’s Day, set aside to honor those who served and made it back, and today, Memorial Day, to honor those who did not.
There’s a certain poetry in having two days for them. It says that their contribution is more valuable to us as a people than any other group, and that honoring both the living and the dead we take the time to thank them once while they are still with us and again when they are gone. There’s also the coincidence of the seasonal timing: Veteran’s Day is in November, the autumn of the year — a poetic way of noting that veterans, regardless of their age, contributed part of the summer of their lives to their country so that we could reap the benefits of their work. Memorial Day comes in the late spring, a reminder that many of the soldiers we honor lost their lives just as they were beginning to bloom into the prime of their life.
I know that November 11 was chosen because that was the day the armistice was signed in 1918 that brought the end to the fighting in World War I. Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day to honor the dead in the Civil War, coming in May 1868. For whatever reason it became the last Monday in May, it has become the unofficial first day of summer, nearly forgetting the reason for this extra day to sleep in and have a cookout. I hope, though, that we can take a moment and remember the lost and honor the living, and wish that instead of having two holidays for our soldiers, we had a time when we didn’t need to have either.
Last Veterans Day I posted John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Field.” I suppose it would be more appropriate to post it today since it remembers the dead.
In Flanders Fields
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.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.