Ninety-nine years ago, The Nation published an editorial about Memorial Day. The First World War was in full swing, and the editors took the moment to reflect on what it was like to commemorate those who died in battle years earlier while young Americans were dying even then in a new war, far away.
The piece began with an invocation of Memorial Days past, in the decades after the Civil War, when Americans throughout the country went through their rituals of commemoration for those they had lost. Memory was painful, but the rituals of remembrance were not altogether unpleasant:
To most Americans of the present generation Memorial Day brings fragrant memories, as they live over again some soft summer afternoon of years long gone. They see once more a brave little procession, headed by the village band, with white-haired veterans hobbling along in the place of honor, wending its way to the cemetery on the hillside. And there they see a few scattered graves, each neatly mowed in preparation for the day, each marked with its flag, each showing the spot where sleeps one of the honored dead of the great struggle of half a century ago. They see the little children, dressed in white, their arms filled with flowers, which they strew over the green mounds, while an occasional tear drops from the eye of some sister or wife, of a generation gone, but whose hurt the years even yet have not wholly healed. And when the simple ceremony is done, they see the little group scatter again to their homes, and the quiet afternoon draws to its close in all the gentle peace of the early summer, while the thrush from the neighboring thicket sounds taps for the hero dead. What American does not cherish such recollections? What one does not recall the impression of profound peace with which the day came to its end?
How things had changed:
That was the Memorial Day of long ago. To-day the village and the city street once more see their processions, but they are of khaki-clad young men, faring forth to the bloody fields of France. Again the bands play, but they summon us to war. And every village throughout the country has already sent dozens of its sons—how many already sleep across the water! No longer is war a dread, forgotten dream of old men, but once again we stand face to face with its maimed bodies and shattered minds and broken hearts. Into the fiery furnace wherein our fathers walked our sons are passing, from east and west, from north and south—marching, marching, the young and the strong, the workers, the poets, the dreamers, marching, on this Memorial Day, on to the fields of France. This is not a day of memory, but a day of prayer.