'/> Uncommon Hours: 'Your Memorial Day weekend'
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Sunday, May 29, 2011

'Your Memorial Day weekend'

'Your Memorial Day weekend'
by Bob Sommer

A few minutes of TV news tells you all you need to know for “your Memorial Day weekend”—travel tips, barbeque tips, weather forecasts. Then follows the sign-off with a maudlin voiceover accompanied by low-angle shots of headstones. “Taps” plays in the background as the visual fades to a fluttering flag, which instantly gives way to a brassy commercial for beer or trucks or toothpaste.

Memorial Day became a fixture to round out a three-day weekend when the National Holiday Act became law in 1971. Previously it was commemorated on May 30th. Some feared that just what happened would happen, as the day got smothered in ketchup and sunscreen.

The 2002 VFW Memorial Day address noted, “Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”

Efforts in both the House and Senate to restore Memorial Day to a fixed date have failed. It’s not difficult to understand why. Just imagine the lost revenues. There’s too much money to be made. Summertime unofficially kicks off this weekend. Swimsuit sales would plummet if Memorial Day went back to May 30th. If that sounds cynical, recall that candy companies successfully lobbied to move daylight savings so Halloween candy sales would get a boost.

“A foolish consistency,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.” How we regard Memorial Day is nothing if not foolishly consistent. Over 6,000 American service members have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past decade while America shopped and amused itself into a stupor. War is lttle more than a distant cloud on the horizon for most, though it’s always there. A generation of children has reached middle-school age with no living memory of America not being at war.

But they’re also growing up with a sense that war doesn’t matter because it affects so few of them. Just one-half of one percent of Americans carry the burden of these wars. We obsess over politicians’ sex lives, the president’s birth certificate, the newest phone gadgets, and the imminent Rapture, but how many can cite the number of American casualties from Iraq and Afganistan, or even find those countries on a map?

And our military casualties are just part of the story of these wars. Conservative estimates put civilian casualties in Iraq at nearly 1 million, while in Afghanistan over 48,000 lives have been lost, including NATO and Afghan soldiers, civilians, journalists, aid-workers, and contractors, as well as the more than 1,500 American service members who’ve died there.

Meditating too much on Memorial Day may be hazardous to war. We might begin to wonder why the men and women we’re honoring from these recent wars had to die, whether the wars in which they fought were just and the sacrifices they were asked to make justified. We might ponder war’s meaning and its consequences. Better to unfurl the beach umbrella and stoke up the coals. Wipe away a tear as the fluttering TV flag fades to commercial. It’s a three-day weekend.

Bob Sommer blogs at Uncommon Hours.

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