Don't the Fallen Deserve at Least a Moment?

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, May 27, 2006

"Memorial Day Sale! Warehouse Is Stocked and Ready for Your Home"; "Memorial Day SALE plus EXTRA 15% OFF when you use your store card or pass"; "Memorial Day 1/2 Price Sale on Mattresses!"; "Memorial Day PIANO SALE"; "UNBELIEVABLE! STOREWIDE SAVINGS JUST IN TIME FOR THE HOLIDAY WEEKEND!"

-- Thursday newspaper ads

This cannot be what Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, had in mind when he officially proclaimed Memorial Day on May 5, 1868. His thought, as best I can tell, was to set aside a day to honor the war dead. The true meaning of Memorial Day, however, has been overcome by door-buster sales, backyard cookouts and the opportunity to get a little extra sleep.

The fallen don't seem to mean much anymore except, perhaps, to veterans of previous wars and their families, and to the nearly 5,000 mothers and fathers of men and women in uniform who have given their all in Iraq. To those parents, please add surviving brothers and sisters, wives, husbands, children, grandchildren, cousins, aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces, neighbors and friends. If these folks happen to gather on Memorial Day, most likely it won't be to organize a shop-a-rama or barbecue. For them, Monday will be the time to remember loved ones who lost their lives serving their country.

The shame is that much of the nation won't be sharing this day of observance with those families. The shameless will be too busy with other pressing matters, such as:

· Taylor Hicks, the "American Idol" -- should he have really won out over Katharine McPhee?

· Rep. William Jefferson from New Orleans! Was he on the take?

· Don't forget Angelina, Brad and the expected baby in Namibia.

Then there's Comcast and the Nats; Libby and the Veep; Pelosi, Hastert and the FBI; illegal immigrants, the border and the debate; and the John Allen Muhammad farce in Rockville. Anything and everything but time to honor to those who have paid the ultimate price.

It shouldn't be this way.

If ever there was a day when the country should call a timeout on fun and self-indulgent distractions and devote some serious time to a solemn observance, it's this Memorial Day. Goodness knows, enough Americans have given their lives to make it possible.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, beginning with the American Revolution and continuing through the war on terrorism (as of Sept. 30, 2005), there were 652,696 American battle deaths, including 53,402 in World War I; 291,557 in World War II; 33,741 in the Korean War; 47,424 in Vietnam; and 147 in Desert Shield-Desert Storm. Those totals don't include the other Americans who died in those theaters of war. That total comes to 14,416. To devote one day to the honor of 667,112 American souls should not be asking too much. Evidently it is.

Otherwise, why will the malls, auto showrooms and ballparks be open for business on Memorial Day? Why, on Monday, will sales outnumber memorial services? But I overreach. I'm fussing about not having a day, when most people aren't inclined to give up a moment. You think not?

What did you do last Memorial Day at 3 p.m.? What will you do this Memorial Day at 3 p.m.?

Lest we forget: Congress put a "National Moment of Remembrance" resolution ( http://www.remember.gov/ ) on the books in December 2000 in the hope that America would return to the true meaning of Memorial Day. The resolution asks that in an act of national unity, Americans at 3 p.m. local time "voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to 'Taps.' "

The resolution notwithstanding, on Monday, some folks will go on nonchalantly as if there isn't a war on. They'll be so distracted in their pursuit of a good time that they will be oblivious to the fact that some of the country's finest are in Iraq and Afghanistan paying with their lives. And the cruel truth, which the comfortable here at home will also ignore, is that today's troops slugging it out overseas -- conveniently out of sight and mind -- are bearing a disproportionately heavy load when it comes to heeding the call to service.

They, more than any other group of Americans, are bearing the brunt of decisions made by politicians in Washington. Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan -- not the well-protected people in the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and Congress -- are the ones losing arms, legs and life itself. An indebted nation owes them more than can ever be repaid. A single, uncluttered day of honor would be a good start. It's the least a grateful America can do.

kingc@washpost.com


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