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I wonder sometimes if people remember the purpose of the Memorial Day holiday. Contemporary belief would indicate that Memorial Day is a day set aside by Congress to grill steaks, ride around in a boat, and drink 30-packs of Coors Light. Of course, there are a lot of American flags involved, on T-shirts, flying from the front porches of homes, or decorating advertisements for sales on furniture and lawn mowers. Just about anything you can stick a flag on, someone has done it.

Originally, Memorial Day was set aside to honor those who have died in service to our country in war. It has since transmogrified into something we use to remember anyone who died, briefly, on our way to the beach wearing our “These Colors Don’t Run” tank top.

The Avenue in the Rain (Childe Hassam, 1917)

We used to take war a lot more seriously in this country. My parents were both veterans of World War II and were justifiably proud of their military service. My Mom, especially, took to reminiscing about the 1940s when she got older. She remembered how an entire nation dropped whatever it was doing in  December of 1941 and devoted every moment and every resource to winning a war that we were reluctantly dragged into (an oversimplification, to be sure). Really, the Rock-Ola Company stopped making juke boxes and started cranking out M-1 carbines. People were totally devoted to administering a beat-down to the forces of evil in the world. We all lived in a Norman Rockwell painting.

Homecoming (Norman Rockwell, 1945)

It’s hard to imagine this country coming together in that way for anything these days, although we pretended to for awhile after 9/11. The mass celebration that followed the two world wars don’t happen now, although young men and women are still traveling to foreign lands to fight, and die, for whatever passes as the national interest these days. The homecomings are local news and there aren’t a lot of parades going on. We don’t want to hear about it. Turn the channel.

Instead of uniting to fight a common enemy, many of us tend to find enemies within our own borders, maybe even our own communities. I find it terribly  ironic when someone describes protesters, be they Tea Party lunatics dressed up as fake patriots or hippies on Wall Street, as un-American, as if they were somehow dishonoring the sacrifice of our war dead by protesting against the government. Anyone who thinks like that simply doesn’t understand this country or our constitution and no amount of talking to them is likely to change that.

Iwo Jima Flag Raising (Joe Rosenthal, 1945)

Those Marines in Joe Rosenthal’s photograph had gone to war so hippies could occupy Wall Street,  people could go to the church of their choice, or no church at all, marry the person they love, and say whatever they had to say about our government. One of them was an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, one a Native American from Arizona. One of them was the son of Texas dairy farmers, another a steelworker’s son from Pennsylvania. They were all Americans, and not one was more American than the others. Three of them were killed in action mere weeks after the photograph was taken.

Today, when you’re flipping burgers and listening to the baseball game on the radio, take a moment to remember what this day is actually for and, more importantly, what the men and women who have gone to war have really been fighting for all this time. It might not be what you thought it was.

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