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Samuel G. Freedman
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Jewish World Review
May 25, 2012/ 4 Sivan, 5772
Observe Memorial Day; it will only take a minute
The issue: These days, war’s sacrifices are borne by a relative few, so this is a way we can pay tribute
Unlike our other wars, the federal government asked nothing of the American public by way of sacrifice for the war in Iraq and the one still ongoing in Afghanistan. And there is alarmingly casual talk of a war with Iran.
IN CONTRAST TO our two greatest and bloodiest conflicts -- the Civil War and World War II, both of which in one way or another touched every American -- these latest wars have been fought by a comparative handful of volunteer professionals.
Still, some of them came, and are still coming, home, in flag-draped coffins -- that an earlier administration did its best to keep out of view lest the sight upset the public. Wars, as Memorial Day can and should remind us, do have costs, even if those costs are borne by a relative few.
That was not the case after the Civil War -- more than 620,000 dead in a nation of just over 30 million -- when decorating the graves of the war dead was a solemn annual ritual. And this was still a solemn duty after World Wars I and II.
But with the passage of time and the aging of the survivors, Memorial Day became a different kind of observance. What changing customs probably would have done in any case was accelerated when Memorial Day was moved from the traditional May 30 to the last Monday of the month for the sake of a three-day weekend.
That weekend is now the official start of summer, the weekend of two big auto races, the national collegiate lacrosse championships and holiday commerce. A popular Memorial Day website touts discounts on hotels, weekend getaways, theater tickets and mattresses.
ALMOST UNSEEN and unremarked is that, in Washington, Memorial Day begins on Thursday, when soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as The Old Guard, place 220,000 small American flags at Arlington National Cemetery as they have every year since 1948.
In the 1990s, a Gallup poll revealed that only 28 percent of Americans knew the meaning of Memorial Day. President Bill Clinton was stunned when a group of schoolchildren touring the capital confidently remarked that Memorial Day was when the swimming pools open.
Yes, that, too, but Congress was moved to enact a National Moment of Remembrance. It is the only thing our government asks of us on Memorial Day, 60 seconds of silence and reflection at 3 p.m.
Considering the sacrifices being commemorated, it is little enough to ask.
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