Wednesday, May 30th, was Memorial Day in the United States. The commemoration began in 1868 shortly after the American Civil War, when townsmen in several communities came together to decorate the graves of the fallen on the last Monday in May. The practice began in the northern states but soon spread to the south and the annual remembrance ceremony soon took on the name Decoration Day. As wars proliferated in the twentieth century the commemoration eventually lost its association with the Civil War and was increasingly referred to nationally as Memorial Day, eventually becoming a federal holiday.
The American Civil war killed 655,000 soldiers, more than all other U.S. wars before or since combined. It was the first modern war in that it relied on railroads and steamships. The North also destroyed the livelihoods of and deliberately starved civilian populations to reduce the South’s will to resist. It was a war fought on U.S. soil and experienced first hand by the American people.
Today Memorial Day has largely lost its connection with dead soldiers and is instead best noted for being regarded as the first day of summer for recreational purposes. Beaches open up, the lifeguards come out and the smell of barbecued meat fills the air. The declining number of veterans of World War 2, Korea and Vietnam work hard to remember the dead but there is little interest from a public that has become increasingly detached from its non-conscripted professional army.
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There is a certain irony in how a holiday commemorating a war fought 150 years ago that had devastating impact, a memento mori to honor the dead and warn the living about the…