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Columnist Gordon Dillow reminds about the true meaning of Memorial Day.
Orange County Register columnist

On this Memorial Day weekend, let's consider for a moment what Memorial Day is – and what it is supposed to be.

Originally called Decoration Day, Memorial Day began 140 years ago as a day to honor and remember the dead of the Civil War. After World War I it evolved into a day to remember the men -- and, increasingly, the women – who died in uniformed service in of all of America's wars.

And there were, and are, far too many of them. Marching through our history are ghostly battalions and regiments and armies of the dead.

There are the 25,000 Americans dead in battle and from disease in the Revolutionary War, the 11,000 dead in the War of 1812, the 13,000 dead in the War with Mexico, the 600,000 dead in the Civil War. There are the 2,500 dead in the Spanish-American War, the 120,000 dead in World War I and the 400,000 dead in World War II. There are the 36,000 dead in Korea and the 58,000 dead in Vietnam, the 300 dead in the Persian Gulf War, the more than 4,500 dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, and thousands of other Americans dead in smaller conflicts around the world.

Most of those who died in uniform over our long history are no longer part of living memory. They are faceless names in the history books or nameless faces in fading old photographs, the personal pain of their loss long since buried by time. Others who died were the sons, daughters, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and buddies of people still living. They were people we knew, and people we loved, and the pain of their deaths still cuts deep.

But whether they died 230 years ago in the American Revolution or 65 years ago in World War II or last month in Iraq, on Memorial Day of all days they deserve to be honored, and remembered.

To remember and honor
them is not to glorify war. No one who has actually seen war would find much glory in it, and neither should anyone else. Nor is it right to say that the legions of dead gladly gave up their lives for their country. None of them truly wanted to die, and none of their individual deaths, taken alone, fundamentally changed the course of history.

But collectively, taken together, the 1.3 million Americans who died in this nation's uniformed service changed everything, not only in their own time but in ours as well. Cynics often try to paint them as mere pawns in lost or misguided or ignoble causes, but if you measure the bad against the good, if you weigh our mistakes against our successes, the deaths of those 1.3 million Americans helped make the world a better place.

It was a high price, one that is surely worth remembering. The question is, on this Memorial Day, will we remember enough?

It has become routine in recent years to lament the transformation of Memorial Day from a day for solemn remembrance to one devoted to barbeques and beach parties and fun in the sun. But I don't share that feeling – and somehow I doubt that the dead would share it, either. I doubt that those who died in America's service would begrudge the living the joys of this American holiday. It is part of the cause and ideals for which they fought and died.

And yet, there is plenty of time in the day for all of us to take just a few minutes to remember what Memorial Day is supposed to be about. We can fly the flag, or attend one of the many Memorial Day services taking place across Orange County. (A list of events is in today's Register and on its web site.) Or we can participate individually in the National Moment of Remembrance program, which asks every American, wherever he or she may be, to pause at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a moment of silence and reflection.

So however you choose to spend it, I hope that you and yours will have a happy Memorial Day.

And also, for just a few brief moments, a solemn one.

CONTACT THE WRITER 714-796-7953 or GLDillow@aol.com