In contrast to our two greatest and bloodiest conflicts — the Civil War and World War II, both of which in one way or another touched every American — these latest wars have been fought by a comparative handful of volunteer professionals.
Still, some of them came, and are still coming, home, in flag-draped coffins. Wars, as Memorial Day can and should remind us, do have costs, even if those costs are borne by a relative few. That was not the case after the Civil War — over 620,000 dead in a nation of just over 30 million — when decorating the graves of the war dead was a solemn annual ritual. And this was still a solemn duty after World Wars I and II.
But with the passage of time and the aging of the survivors, Memorial Day became a different kind of observance. What changing customs would have probably done in any case was accelerated when Memorial Day was moved from the traditional May 30 to the last Monday of the month for the sake of a three-day weekend.
That weekend is now the official start of summer, the weekend of two big auto races, the national collegiate lacrosse championships and holiday commerce. A popular Memorial Day website touts discounts on hotels, weekend getaways, theater tickets and mattresses.
Almost unseen and unremarked is that, in Washington, Memorial Day began on Thursday, when soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as The Old Guard, placed 220,000 small American flags at Arlington National Cemetery as they have every year since 1948.
Closer to home, thousands of Boy and Cub Scouts from all over the region gathered Saturday morning to place miniature U.S. flags on the graves of the thousands of servicemen buried in the Marietta National Cemetery.
In the 1990s, a Gallup poll revealed that only 28 percent of Americans knew the meaning of Memorial Day. President Bill Clinton was stunned when a group of school children touring the capital confidently remarked that Memorial Day was when the swimming pools open.
Yes, that, too, but Congress was moved to enact a National Moment of Remembrance. It is the only thing our government asks of us on Memorial Day, 60 seconds of silence and reflection at 3 p.m.
Considering the sacrifices being commemorated, it is little enough to ask.