This Memorial Day weekend, did you spend more time thinking about what kind of beer and brats you'd buy for your picnic than about the 1.2 million who have given their lives in uniform? Did the latter even cross your mind?
Yes, the President will be speaking platitudes (truthful) today about the courage and tragedy of those who lost their lives. But, I would wager that most people, while aware that Memorial Day is a federal holiday to commemorate our military dead, are indifferent to the gravitas of this holiday. Setting aside your position on the propriety of more recent armed conflicts (Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam), one thing you know for certain: many persons, typically young and working-class, have given their life wearing a U.S. uniform.
How to account then for the fact that this very serious holiday has become little more than the official start of summer? There are several forces at work, and I will try to parse them out.
Americans are Uncomfortable with Mortality
For a country remarkably comfortable with violent movie content and a high murder rate, we are uncomfortable with mortality. If we can avoid it, we do. Thus the proliferation of every possible treatment or surgery on the body to avoid signs of aging. If we are 60, we want to look 40. Memorial Day is a day to deal with the fact that our nation has lost 1.2 million soldiers and sailors acting at our direction (yes, we're a democracy). Since we're uncomfortable with this reality, and our own mortality, we have transitioned Memorial Day into a vapid summer launch celebration.
Americans Don't Like Downers
In a similar vein as the previous example, American are relentlessly optimistic and avoid undue analysis of their actions. We are not a moody people and don't like to dwell on the past, much less a bloody past (except when we re-enact Civil War battles - which we'll then ignore on Memorial Day). It probably would've made sense to have memorial periods after major conflicts and wars (like a 10-year period), give the dead their due and then "bury" that particular war in a proper way. Of course, we would not then have a 3-day weekend for decades. In a strange way, this is a strength - we can avoid replaying bloody history (as in Ireland, Rwanda etc...) by simply forgetting it.
Americans Ignore War Dead if They're Poor
While we enjoy violence as entertainment, our middle and upper middle classes have largely left the dirty business of the battlefield to the children of hard-working folks of rural areas and the inner city. With no draft, we have a regressive military - where the tax of death is meted out in greater quantity on the poor. Since the poor are a downer (see above), we tune out their deaths (like the thousands lost in the Middle East in the last nine years). In World War II and Vietnam, when the draft was still in place, everyone knew someone who had served (both my step-dad and father-in-law served in the Navy) and knew someone who died in war. This maintained a sense of community purpose and sacrifice. With the loss of a heterogeneous military, we have less reason to focus on the tragic aspect of Memorial Day.
War Now Polarizes
In recent decades, it has been more difficult to maintain citizen unity around military action (for better or worse). With the internet, we all have access to information (at least pseudo-information) and routinely reach our own conclusions about whether we should go into a certain war. This discernment started in Vietnam, though the average American then was not an anti-war protestor. With our complex political transitions from 1980 to the present day, partisan politics has smothered traditional patriotism. Our government has been challenged to develop common purpose around something as innocuous as a new national park, much less an endeavor of the scope of war. The political rancor over the "War on Terror," albeit justified, has compromised our ability, or willingness, to deal with the very real tragedy of lost lives and broken families.
All Holidays Drift Toward Oblivion of Meaning
Maybe this is too obvious. We can all complain that our particular pet holidays have become compromised through material culture (Turkey Day, Fireworks Day, Present Day, Egg Day... and the list goes on). In some ways, the holidays that still work are ones with little gravity or historical complexity to begin with - Halloween, Valentine's Day, New Year's Day). We can simply enjoy them and not have to worry about ignoring their real purpose (enjoying them is the purpose!). But to see holidays with religious or historical significance drift into "3-day weekends" and occasions to sell products or intoxicating beverages is a little disheartening.
Perhaps the end was near for Memorial Day in 1968 when Congress changed several federal holidays to the certain Monday of a certain week of the month. We would celebrate the holiday, but only if it gave us a long weekend. Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, a WWII vet, has tried for years without success to move Memorial Day back to its original May 30th date.
Vesting holidays with substance has become a matter of personal choice - not common social purpose or obligation. When you enjoy your Memorial Day picnic with family, and you should, will you remember the 1.2 million? Balance levity with gravity on this Memorial Day and keep in mind the sacrifice others have made for the safety of our Republic.