“An appeal to the people of Tower and Soudan to observe Memorial Day this year in a manner that will pay fitting tribute to the soldier and sailor dead was made by Nelson-Jackson Post No. 245, …
“An appeal to the people of Tower and Soudan to observe Memorial Day this year in a manner that will pay fitting tribute to the soldier and sailor dead was made by Nelson-Jackson Post No. 245, American Legion, in a resolution which was adopted at a recent meeting of the post. All Legion men throughout the country are making special efforts to bring before the public the importance of this day, which, they say, has deteriorated from a day of observance to one of mere sport and recreation.”
-- Tower Weekly News, May 28, 1920
Sound familiar? For most of us, Memorial Day today is the official kickoff of summer, a three-day weekend often stretched to four by folks eager to get in an extra day of fun and frolic. Nearly 40 million Americans will make this one of the busiest travel weekends of the year, and few will be carrying flowers to place on the graves of those who died in military service to the country.
That’s not to say that there won’t be special observances of Memorial Day. There will be many, including the return this year, after a COVID-related hiatus, of the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington, D.C. To be honest, while I’ve harbored a reverence for the meaning of Memorial Day all my life, I didn’t have a clue there was an actual National Memorial Day Parade. As I’m decades beyond being a teenager, it’s fair for me to call it a “recent” development, as the first one was staged in 2005. Prior to that, there hadn’t been a Memorial Day parade in Washington, D.C. in nearly 70 years. But by and large, it seems that for the vast majority of Americans these days, observing Memorial Day is largely an afterthought, if even a thought at all.
Why is that? Why did the importance of officially honoring the nation’s military dead wane in the early part of the 20th century, and why has it done so again in the 21st? Not surprisingly, I have some thoughts on the matter.
Memorial Day began as a grassroots movement after the Civil War to honor fallen Union and Confederate soldiers. The death toll of about 750,000 was staggering, as it would be the equivalent in today’s U.S. population of 8.2 million dead. It’s of little surprise that in the wake of such devastating carnage that the nation would seek ways to begin to heal.
At least two dozen communities claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, in the beginning called Decoration Day because of the practice of scattering or placing flowers on their graves. As the practice became more widespread, towns, cities, and states made Memorial Day an official annual observance, complete with the standard governmental proclamations of such. Local observances were increasingly driven over the years by the families and friends of the fallen and their comrades in arms, the veterans who survived. The significant involvement of veterans in Memorial Day observances was such that by the turn of the century the official proclamations often suggested that their service should be honored along with the service of those who died in the war, a blurring of the primary intent of the day that again resonates in the modern era.
By the time America entered World War 1 in 1917, it was 52 years after the end of the Civil War. Over half of Civil War veterans had died, the U.S. population had more than tripled from 31 million to 103 million, and a dozen new states had been added to the country. With an aging veteran contingent becoming a sharply decreasing fraction of the population in a country swelling from a huge influx of immigrants who had no part in the Civil War, and a nation intent on building its future, is it any wonder that Memorial Day had dwindled in significance?
To be sure, the day was still officially observed, but formal recognition services were few and far between, and I believe that was due to the temporal distance from the day’s origins and the dwindling number of people who had been directly impacted by the deaths in the Civil War.
For Tower, Soudan, and countless other communities, the resurgence of Memorial Day was driven by veterans of World War I who wanted their 117,000 war-dead comrades to be honored for their ultimate sacrifices, and in particular five area boys who perished. The Nelson-Jackson Post of the American Legion here was formed in October 1919, named for Charles G. Nelson and Fred Jackson, two local men who were killed in the war. That next spring, with veterans leading the way, Tower and Soudan observed Memorial Day with a huge march led by the Soudan band from the Tower school to the McKinley Monument for speeches and songs and prayers for the fallen, and most walked on to Lakeview Cemetery to decorate the graves of all those there who had served in the military. It was a resurgence played out locally and nationwide for years and years.
I started attending Memorial Day observances in my little Kansas hometown as a young lad in the late 1960s. My World War II veteran father and my mother had named me for a great uncle who was killed in World War I, and with many friends among the casualties of World War II, he was keenly aware of the true purpose of the day, and he instilled that in me. Over the years, I remember two things about those hometown observances. First, they were sponsored and led by veterans’ organizations, the VFW and American Legion. And second, as the number of veterans in the community declined, so, too, did the size of the crowd that turned out. That small town and most of the others in the county still hold heartfelt, reverent Memorial Day observances, still mostly led by veterans or their families, and all with fewer attendees than the number of folks sitting outside their RVs at the nearby reservoir enjoying their three or four-day weekend at the same time.
In the 47 years since the end of the Vietnam War, about 8,000 U.S. military members have lost their lives in armed conflicts, and while each loss is tragic, that’s the second-longest period in this nation’s history with so few military deaths. Curiously, the longest period with comparable deaths is the 52 years from the end of the Civil War to America’s engagement in World War I. Both periods were also marked by steep declines in the number of military veterans. Parallels in history abound, don’t they? We can only hope that the current stretch of minimal casualties beats that mark by decades and decades.
I’m admittedly a purist when it comes to Memorial Day. I don’t begrudge those who choose to honor their family veterans or express support for the military on that day, but that’s not what Memorial Day was supposed to be about. It was intended and should be about all of those men and women who never got the chance to be called “veteran.” So, with the sound of fishing boats and speed boats providing the echoes of “sport and recreation” on Monday, I’ll be spending some time at Lakeview Cemetery visiting the graves of Charles G. Nelson and Leslie Fredrick Jackson, remembering my great uncle and their comrade-in-arms David Potter, and reflecting not only on their patriotism and sacrifice, but on the horrible toll on humankind that results from our inability to inhabit this world in peace and harmony. We have far more than enough dead patriots to observe Memorial Day. Enough is enough.