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Davis: Memorial Day reflections

05/21/09 5:55PM By Kenneth Davis
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(HOST) Historian and commentator Ken Davis has been thinking about the real significance of Memorial Day.

(DAVIS) A "Memorial Day Mattress Sale" ad was airing on the car radio as I rolled through Dover, Delaware the last week. Coincidentally, on the same radio station, just a few minutes earlier, a sportscaster had bemoaned the fact he didn¹t know where Delaware was.

But Delaware - and specifically Dover - had been on my mind all morning. A photograph of the remains of an American soldier killed in Baghdad last week had run in the newspaper that day. The casket was passing through Dover Air Force Base, where the remains of American service people killed overseas are respectfully handled, as they make the long, sad journey to a final resting place.

Images of the returning war dead, only recently permitted after an 18-year blackout, remind us that Memorial Day was never about deals on mattresses. Or swimsuit sales. Or picnics. Or the price of a gallon of gas as the summer driving season begins. It is the most somber day on the national calendar.

Memorial Day was born in the wake of the American Civil War as Decoration Day, a day in which people literally decorated the graves of fallen soldiers with fresh flowers. In 1868, it became a semi-official holiday established to commemorate that loss and sacrifice. In the Civil War, that meant some 620,000 American lives lost - an astonishing two percent of the population at the time. A similar loss today would mean nearly six million dead.

As the Civil War generation died off, the day lost much of its meaning until the trench warfare of World War I brought back the stark reality of sacrifice. Over time, Decoration Day morphed into Memorial Day, a holiday meant to commemorate all of those who gave their lives in service to the nation in all of America's wars. Sadly, the Memorial
Day ideal got hijacked in our modern consumer culture.

But as I drove past Dover Air Force Base, one of those big cargo planes was making its approach. And I couldn't help but imagine that it might hold more of those flag-draped caskets. In my mind, I heard the words of Abraham Lincoln: "That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain."

This Memorial Day, let's be clear - it's not about the ultimate sale but the ultimate sacrifice.
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