The observance started out simply, as genuine expressions of sentiment often do. Reeling from the awful loss of life in the Civil War, townspeople across the country gathered in villages to decorate the graves of America's war dead. The nation was stupefied by the losses it had never seen before in a single war — losses it mercifully has not seen since.
But Memorial Day, which we mark today, has as solemn a place as Decoration Day did in the 1860s. Over the course of our nation's young history, the day has grown to honor the more than 1.2 million American men and women who have been killed in service to our country from the American Revolution to the ongoing war on terror. That includes the 1,000 soldiers lost in Afghanistan, a somber milestone just reached last week.
The observance of Memorial Day may have changed, as almost everything else has changed in the past two centuries. But the long holiday weekend retains the color and tradition of earlier times. Americans in uniform of all ages, from servicemen and women to Boy and Girl Scouts, plant flags at the graves of soldiers. Firefighters and community bands march in parades. The nation has not taken for granted the high price that military families and entire communities have paid.
This year marks a good time, with America's military presence about to wind down in Iraq and Afghanistan, for the nation to prepare to welcome its servicemen and women home. They will need jobs, health care, education and counseling to deal with the stress of combat and — for many — repeated overseas deployments. These veterans will bring rich experience and maturity back into civilian society, and the nation needs to help make the transition as easy as possible.
One can only dream that this holiday might one day no longer be a running commemoration of personal loss. But it speaks to what is unique about America that the call to defend freedom has never gone unanswered. Decoration Day may be a distant memory. But it recognized — even after the Civil War — that there is a common bond to the American experience. That is well worth remembering today as the anger and partisan heat sweeping the country threaten to overshadow why we call this place home.