In 1868, the commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic issued a general order setting aside a day "for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country." The number of comrades who have died, of graves to decorate, of tears to shed has multiplied greatly since, just as the once solemn holiday has slowly turned from a national commemoration of fallen heroes to a three-day weekend during which we are urged to drive safely and avoid sunburn. Silence fills the city: its residents who can afford to have left it.
It is always less painful to forget than to remember, as it is easier to mourn for a certain past that is irrevocably lost than to build for an uncertain future that cannot be known. Sometimes forgetting is better. We do not envy those who remember too well every ancient grievance, so that revenge becomes their only goal. To remember only the horrors is to avoid the lesson, and surely there is a lesson to be learned not only from the distant past but equally from the toll of dead that rises daily on the Iran-Iraq border, in the South Atlantic, in Central America, in Afghanistan, in small wars we scarcely hear about on every continent.
Perhaps our memories have become somehow defective, either too numbed or too sharp. Do we suffer from--what other word?--overkill? There is reason for silence. The figures are awesome beyond comprehension: more than a million citizens of this still splendid republic in soldiers' graves; and millions upon millions of the people of our lonely planet dead in just this past century of virtually constant warfare. Why did they die? For honor, for principle, for justice: those great goals that politicians of all stripes and on all sides are so fond of invoking.
Sometimes, of course, the politicians are right. Justice is a noble goal, and men and women have died with valor fighting for it. But whose honor, which principle, what justice? These are the most serious of questions and in times of crisis, words-- all the noble-sounding martial words--flow as freely as blood.
We ought to remember the dead on Memorial Day, but we ought also to remember the dying and those who are about to die. Let us strew the graves with flowers, but let us also learn if we can their lessons for the living, so that the whole earth will not become, as Pericles said to the citizens of Athens, "the tomb of warriors."