A Reflection on How We Mark Memorial Day

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2014.

Today, after writing this, I go to Swiss Cottage station, take the Jubilee line to Bond Street and from there go east on the Central line. In the shadow of the soaring dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, I will exit London’s labyrinthine underground system. Once inside, go to the east end of the building and find the American Memorial Chapel. This corner of the cathedral complex was destroyed during the Blitz of World War II and the chapel was rebuilt to commemorate the Americans who died during the conflict.

This will be my place to think to mark this day. Memorial Day is both a national day of remembrance and a highly personal one. We all experience Memorial Day differently. But however it is experienced, it is the day we set aside as a nation that we can take a few moments to remember.

There are certain memories that, while always there, come back to me on every Memorial Day. I remember the moment I heard the news from the first person on my cadet platoon to be killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. I remember the “hero flights” that came to our bases to carry fallen soldiers on the first leg of their journey home. I remember the bracelets we wore, each bearing the name of a friend who had left too soon, and how few of one’s wrists were unadorned over the course of the war years.

But these are my memories. Few of us have no memories of our own. They can be from today’s wars or yesterday’s wars. They can be poignant or fleeting. They can feature friends, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, neighbors, or just someone we’ve read about. It does not matter. Today is the day we set out to carry those memories forward.

And just as every American will experience Memorial Day uniquely, we will all celebrate it in our own way. I attended a memorial service at a small base chapel in Baghdad; I watched a sunset over the dusty plains of Helmand Province from a bunker; I did the trip to Arlington National Cemetery; and this year I’m going to a small memorial chapel in central London. A lot has changed in my life since I stopped wearing ACUs. Marking that day is one thing that will never be.

Our calendar is packed with holidays associated with iconic and formative elements. Christmas has its trees, Thanksgiving has turkey, Easter has eggs and a rabbit. Memorial Day is a blank canvas to commemorate in any way we see fit. Old men might tell stories about their buddies to children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren. Young vets may email around to recall stories about “that time” a certain friend did something awesome, funny, or crazy before they left. Some will visit cemeteries, others will spend some time alone, and still others, in the midst of a chaotic and happy day with family or friends, will take a moment to remember what is today. It doesn’t matter how we do it. It just matters that we do it.

We don’t actually 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 a pleasant one and that today you are all able to celebrate this day however you wish. If it seems right to you, then it’s the right way.

John Amble is Editor-in-Chief of the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is a military intelligence officer in the US Army Reserve and a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is the former editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.

Image: US Air Force photo by Airman Juliana Londono

https://warontherocks.com/2022/05/a-reflection-on-how-we-mark-memorial-day/ A Reflection on How We Mark Memorial Day

Alley Einstein

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