The solemn act of honoring those who have fallen in battle is a custom that seems to have faded in importance to our nation over time.
Nowadays, many Americans have forgotten the meaning and traditions of Memorial Day. At cemeteries across the country, the graves of the fallen are sadly ignored, and worse, neglected.
While there are towns and cities still planning Memorial Day parades, many have not held a parade in decades. Some think the day is for honoring anyone who has died, not just those fallen in service to our country.
Perhaps they do not know how deeply our nation once appreciated those who sacrificed their lives in defense of the principles we hold most dear. Perhaps those very principles of individual sovereignty, freedom and liberty are no longer so important.
It was not always so. In 1868, on May 5th, Memorial Day, originally called “Decoration Day,” was officially proclaimed by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11.
General Logan asked that we cherish “tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes. Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders.”
But times change. In the 1960s our warriors were not welcomed back from battle with parades and cheers, and the fallen were not honored as they had been in the past.
Perhaps reflecting those times, the Uniform Holidays Bill was passed in 1968 as part of a move to use federal holidays to create three-day weekends – time for fun and recreation, rather than remembrance and reflection.
Thus, from 1971 onwards, the Memorial Day holiday was officially observed on the last Monday in May and became the unofficial start of the summer, with barbecues, blockbuster movie openings and mattress sales.
No less than the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization was later moved to say “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.”
It was around that time as well that defense spending began a steep decline, and in 1976, for the first time, entitlement spending exceeded defense spending. It is a trend that has rapidly accelerated, with spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid more than double that of national defense, a core constitutional function of government.
Nonetheless, the United States of America still possesses the greatest military force the world has ever known. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen volunteer to protect and defend this country and all its citizens, and do so with honor, integrity and excellence. Our nation continually asks them to do more and more, with less and less.
We must never forget why we have, and why we need our military. Our armed forces exist solely to ensure our nation is safe, so that each and every one of us can sleep soundly at night, knowing we have “guardians at the gate.”
Those who serve today deserve our gratitude, those who are returning from the battlefield deserve our open arms, and those who will never return deserve our thoughts, tributes and remembrance.
In 2000, President Clinton passed a resolution asking all Americans to observe a “National Moment of Remembrance” at 3 p.m. on each Memorial Day “to remember and reflect on the sacrifices made by so many to provide freedom for all.” I know what I will be doing at 3 p.m. this Memorial Day. I hope I will not be alone.
For as General Logan proclaimed, “Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
They were steadfast and loyal.
Congressman Allen West is the U.S. representative for Florida’s 22nd congressional district and a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel.