war on the rocks

Memorial Day: An Intensely Personal and National Holiday

May 29, 2017

Today, after writing this, I’ll walk to Swiss Cottage station, take the Jubilee line to Bond Street, and head east on the Central line from there.  I’ll emerge from London’s labyrinthine underground network in the shadow of the towering dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Once inside, I’ll head to the eastern end of the building and find the American Memorial Chapel.  This corner of the cathedral complex was destroyed during the blitz in World War II, and the chapel was rebuilt as a commemoration of the Americans who died during the conflict.

That will be my place to reflect, to mark this day.  Memorial Day is at once a national day of commemoration and an intensely personal one.  We all feel Memorial Day differently.  But however it’s experienced, it’s the day we set aside as a nation, when we can take a few moments to remember.

There are specific memories that, while always there, come back to me each Memorial Day.  I remember the moment I heard the news of the first person in my Officer Candidate School platoon that had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.  I remember the “hero flights” that came to our bases to carry fallen servicemembers on the first leg of their journeys home.  I remember the bracelets that we wore, each of which carried the name of a friend gone too soon, and how few wrists were unadorned by one as the years of war went on.

But these are my memories.  Few among us don’t have memories of their own.  They may be from today’s wars or yesterday’s.  They may be poignant or fleeting.  They may feature friends, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, neighbors, or just somebody we’ve read about.  It doesn’t matter.  Today is the day that we set aside to carry those memories forward.

And just as each American will feel Memorial Day uniquely, we will each mark it in our own way.  I’ve attended a memorial service in the chapel on a small base in Baghdad; I’ve watched a sunset over the dusty plains of Helmand province from atop a bunker; I’ve made the trip to Arlington National Cemetery; and this year, I’ll head to a small memorial chapel in central London.  Much has changed in my life since I stopped wearing ACUs.  Marking this day is one thing that never will.

Our calendar is filled with holidays that have iconic and defining items associated with them.  Christmas has its trees, Thanksgiving has Turkey, Easter has eggs and a rabbit.  Memorial Day is a blank canvas, ours to commemorate in whatever way we see fit.  Old men might tell stories about their buddies to children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren.  Young vets might send around emails to recall stories about “that one time” that a certain friend did something great or funny or crazy before he was gone.  Some will visit cemeteries, others will spend some time alone, and still others will take a moment amid a chaotic and happy day with family or friends to remember what today is.  It doesn’t matter how we do it.  It’s just important that we do it.

We don’t really say “happy Memorial Day.”  It doesn’t sound right.  So instead, and on behalf of War on the Rocks, let me just say that I hope your weekend has been an enjoyable one, and that you’re all able today to mark this day, however you choose.  If it seems right to you, it’s the right way.

 

John Amble is the editorial director of the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is a military intelligence officer in the US Army Reserve and a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

This article was originally published in 2014.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Daniel Hughes