To honor the fallen of the nation's wars is the least that posterity owes them. Some more practical obligations ensue, such as insuring decent education, health and opportunities for the children and heirs of those who sacrificed. But honor and remembrance are not without value.
Memorial Day began with decorations of the new graves of the fallen during and after the Civil War and took on a national character in 1868. Antietam battlefield has always been one of the more important sites of commemoration.
If only that was the last war for which we must mourn the fallen, usually young men cut off at the start of fruitful lives and adventures. Few today may even know which was "the war to end wars." That was, in fact, World War I. But like many a war, its end created conditions leading to the next.
And so, this Memorial Day, we honor not only those who made the supreme sacrifice for their nation, their society, their neighbors, in World War II, and Korea, and Vietnam, but also in Grenada and Panama and Desert Storm. How many of the dead were gay, we will never know. Comparatively few were women, though there will be more in the future.
The terrible thing about Memorial Day is that we would properly mourn the dead who are not yet fallen in the next war, who may be drinking beer and playing softball and not attending solemn ceremonies on this day, or who may be playing on tricycles and slides and swings.
It would be nice to believe that no more wars will engage the United States. The balance of terror of the Cold War worked in raising the stakes between the United States and Soviet Union so high that avoidance of that war preoccupied strategists of both countries.
Limited war, low-intensity operations and other euphemisms for conflict below the holocaust level did not, however, become unthinkable. War remained, for demagogues of many countries, a means of entrenching personal power.
A look at world trouble spots suggests that war is becoming more thinkable, more likely, more attractive to rulers and would-be rulers, especially in the less sophisticated nations. The weapons race, now that the Soviet Union and United States have halted their competition, is going full blast in country after country that cannot afford it.
And if that is the case, the United States has undoubtedly not mourned the last of its fallen soldiers. Of all the solemn thoughts that are appropriate on what was intended by its originators to be a solemn day, that is the worst.