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Thursday, May 26, 2011 12:32 am

In memory of lives lost to war

The last Monday of every May is devoted to the memory of an estimated 3.5 million (according to the U.S. Census Bureau) Americans who have fought and died for this country. Created in 1868 to honor the approximate 400,000 Confederate and Union soldiers who valiantly defended opposite ideals, the genesis of Memorial Day derives from the tears of America’s grieving heart, which have saturated her fields since these lands were first colonized. Before a national holiday was ever established, communities gathered independently all over the North and South to honor the loss of their heroic citizens.

During Decoration Day, thousands amassed at Arlington National Cemetery, a military cemetery established after the Civil War, to honor the dead by placing flowers on the 200 acres devoted to the fallen soldiers of a divided country. Due to the continuous public expressions of sorrow, Congress designated a specific day of remembrance for the country to recognize all those who have and will sacrifice their lives in the defense of American ideology. For a long time the South refused to recognize the same holiday as the North until, finally in 1970, Congress established a national day that was set aside for the entire country to commemorate its fallen heroes.        

It wasn’t until World War I (1914-1918) that the poppy became the international symbol of remembrance for all soldiers killed in war. A Canadian medic, Major John McCrae, wrote “In Flanders Fields” after treating the casualties of the Second Battle of Ypres (1915). He was profoundly affected by the death of a young friend, which inspired McCrae to write a poem that would eventually immortalize the voice of the fallen soldier. Through the description of crimson poppies that would continue to grow near a small cemetery on bomb-blasted fields of the French countryside, McCrae forever intertwined the image of the red poppy with the blood-stained fields of fire found all over the global theater of war. The poem opens, “In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row, / That mark our place; and in the sky/ The larks, bravely singing, fly/ Scarce heard amid the guns below.” After composing the poem, a discouraged McCrae discarded it, only to be retrieved by a young soldier who sent it off for publication. In response to the poem, an American woman, Miona Michael, made silk poppies to wear on Memorial Day in memory of all the men and woman who have died in the service of their country.

Although Memorial Day is a specifically American federal holiday, many countries around the world observe a day of remembrance for their fallen military.  Russia observes “Protector of the Motherland Day,” a national holiday that honors all the Russian soldiers lost in war. Israel acknowledges Yom Hazikaron, which is the country’s “Fallen Soldier’s Remembrance Day.” Soldiers are memorialized as heroes all around the globe.

Here at home, at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day, our country will observe a National Moment of Remembrance. Citizens are asked to bow their heads in a moment of silence for the millions of citizens who have fought and died for America. Our country’s past has been tumultuous and bloody; we are continuously engaged in a state of warfare, either internationally or here at home. This Memorial Day, as we meditate in silence, we will remember the millions of brave American soldiers who have died for this country. As we wear our red poppies, we will also be united with the world in commemoration of all valiant lives lost in war.

Ashley Green is a Ph.D. candidate currently completing her degree in 20th Century British and American Literature from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Her research focuses exclusively on the combat experience as expressed through literary texts. Ashley is currently employed at D’arcy’s Pint and VFW Post 755.
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