MONDAY, MAY 31, IS MEMORIAL DAY. It’s a holiday, which means people lucky enough to get the day off from work can gather with others who have been “fully vaccinated” and assemble outdoors, because that’s where it’s safest.
It’s not about celebrating in the sense of a big party like July 4th, Thanksgiving or New Year’s Eve. But parties will happen, and in the absence of an official “Victory Over Covid-19 Day,” it’s understandable why most of us would welcome the opportunity to relax and have fun, even as the threat of the virus lingers.
These temptations don’t excuse us from remembering for some part of this one day that we have an obligation to honor the members of the armed forces of the United States who died during the many wars this nation has fought.
We had a reminder of what the day means with the return last week of the remains of Cpl. Clifford Johnson. He was 20 at the time of his death, killed most during or following a major battle in North Korea in December 1950. He was originally from Valatie, and it was not until his remains were returned by North Korea and eventually identified by the U.S. government that he could be buried at the national cemetery in Schuylerville. For his family and for the community, he is home.
Historians still debate exactly where the Memorial Day tradition began, although most acknowledge that it started as the Civil War ended and the extent of the carnage sank in. It was a radical act for widows and children to honor the dead of both North and South. And when it turned out that Black people who had been enslaved conducted one of the largest and most elaborate and earliest ceremonies for war dead, records of those gatherings were suppressed for decades. Their contributions still are not as well known as they deserve to be.
Regardless of the conflicting origin stories, the day to honor our military dead endures. That may be due in part to the ability of those who observe Memorial Day to separate the wars from those who fight them. Following the American Revolution, we fought the War of 1812, wars with tribes and nations of Native Americans, and the war with Mexico, all before the Civil War began. And think of the list of wars since. The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare wars and the president the powers to wage them. You don’t hear much praise on Memorial Day about the civilian leaders.
Memorial Day is for the warriors. But the definitions are changing. We have new enemies now, and not just the ever shifting roster of our allies and bad guys. You don’t have to assign evil intentions to Covid-19 to accept that the virus actively attacks us. It’s an international threat to our peace and security, and neither our arsenal of conventional weapons nor our nuclear bombs can do anything to protect us without making the whole situation worse.
It’s also worth noting that there are people who put on uniforms, who are willing to obey the orders of superiors and confront Covid-19 in order to protect the lives of civilians. Some of these same people work on strategies to defeat this coronavirus enemy and all the other microscopic predators that would find humans the tastiest item on their menu.
So this Memorial Day attend one of the small, socially distanced local observances for those who have put their lives on the line for others and lost their own lives as a result. The list includes the armed forces. But leave a little time as well for the folks we sometimes take for granted, the ones who stand guard over people attacked by a dangerous biological enemy. We casually refer to these brave people as front-line workers. The job description matters. This Memorial Day, give those people, too, the recognition they deserve.