It is uniquely American, this Memorial Day (Decoration Day) remembrance. More so than even Thanksgiving in November... after all, Canada celebrates a Thanksgiving of their own each year on the second Monday in November... and there are lots of harvest festivals around the world...
This Memorial Day is not even unique in many details; indeed, it borrows many of its modern nuances from Remembrance Day celebrations across the globe that have grown to be about more than just World War I. Those celebrations, blessed that they are, still subtly different... they remember the hope, and the heartbreak, and the cost borne by *nations* when their vast numbers were *sent* to war. One needs to look closely, perhaps at a small town that hasn't changed much in a hundred years in some corner of France, the Federal Republic, or the United Kingdom, to see the cost borne by *individuals*... and who may very well have *gone* to war of their own volunteer.
Perhaps that is where the American Memorial Day takes on its character.
Not in the detail... the U.S.A. fought all its Industrial-era wars with conscripts order to serve... but in the spirit. The spirit that, when war came, Americans volunteered to go and fight for their cause. Memorial Day, in its original incarnation as Decoration Day, actually predates any appreciable conscription in American service. Both came into being in 1863 (*see note, below)... and even by the end of the American Civil War, less than 8% of the Union Army was composed of draftees (~2% actual conscripts, ~6% paid "substitutes"). Only at its peak, almost a hundred years later, did conscripts exceed volunteers in American service. (The three years of the Korean War being the example.) Twenty years after that, there was no conscript service in American forces.
That tradition combines well with the American sense of the individual. So much so that come Memorial Day, when one sees the flag planted before the grave of an American soldier, one doesn't ask whether they were a conscript or a volunteer...
...one asks what is their name.
As noted above, conscription for the Union Army was ordered in 1863. The tradition of "decorating" war graves was established at about the same time, and May was the traditional time. However, to be precise, the Decoration Day holiday called for by the Grand Army of the Republic (a post-civil war veteran's society) was May 30th, 1868.
I had to work part of today, being that Japan has no Memorial Day (and their closest equivalents are quietly celebrated in August and November), but I've managed to get things taken care of, having asked favor of a client for some time to have done so. My thanks.
Ich hatt' einen Kameraden...
Memorial Day, 2010