By Phil Polizatto,Worldwidehippies- It’s Memorial Day as I am writing this article. I just got back from a walk to the grocery
store. Along the way, between neighbors and clerks, I was greeted with “Happy
Memorial Day” at least ten times. If one more person wishes me a “Happy” Memorial
Day, I think I will scream!
There is nothing happy about it. I tuned in to hear Obama pay homage to the fallen in
the most solemn way. I am sure around the country, there were similar events to honor
the fallen in war. But like a fidgety kid in church who can’t wait until the service is over,
I imagined many people were anxious for the formal remembrances to be finished, so
they could begin their playtime. Isn’t that what Memorial Day Weekend is all about?
Partying, drinking, picnicking, barbequing?
Originally, the day was known as Decoration Day, designated in 1868 by General John
Logan as a day to commemorate the deaths caused by that horrific war called “civil,” and
to decorate the graves of those Civil War veterans. It was one day and one day only. It
didn’t matter what day of the week it was. It only established that May 30th would be the
day of remembrance.
Probably few people of that time realized there would be so many more wars and many
more dead that would deserve to be honored. Decoration Day or Memorial Day, as it
came to be known, was a day to remember the fallen of all wars in which US servicemen
and women gave their lives in battle. Still, it was one day and one day only. It was a
solemn day. It was a day to meditate on all war dead, and perhaps to ponder the reasons
why they gave their lives, to what end, and was the end worth the means?
Then in 1971, President Nixon declared that Memorial Day would be a federal holiday to
be held the last Monday in May, thereby giving most Americans a three-day weekend.
The hotels, motels, restaurants, and resorts came to count on Memorial Day Weekend to
be the first big weekend of the summer and couldn’t wait to greet their guests so anxious
for a good time and to relieve them of a chunk of their disposable income. The malls and
department stores were ecstatic and offered Memorial Day sales. I can’t remember a
time when all stores were ever closed on Memorial Day.
In exchange for the three-day weekend, all you had to do was spend a few moments
on that Monday morning and honor the fallen in war. Then you could continue the
partying, shopping, and vacating that had probably begun the previous Friday night. It
was like the obligation to sing the National Anthem before a baseball game. We all sang
and put our hands over our hearts and tried to be serious for as long as the song lasted,
but upon the final note, the crowd could burst into happy hoopla as the pitcher took to
the mound. The solemnity of the song which had just finished would disappear as fast as
the first beer and hot dog did, and for the rest of the day it would be happy, happy, and
Perhaps that is why the Veterans of Foreign Wars were opposed to changing the date
for this occasion. They knew the result would be an excuse to socialize and celebrate,
rather than mourn, thereby diluting the solemnity of the day. But Americans love their
holidays, including myself. But I knew this was not a day to be happy. And it is not a day
to remember only US troops killed in battle, as if an American life is more valuable than
one from another country. It is not a day to commemorate only the soldiers who died,
but also the “collateral damage” caused by war. How brilliant of the person who came up
with that phrase! “Collateral damage” sanitizes the innocent civilians who also died as
a result of war. “Collateral damage” doesn’t even begin to describe the gore, the horror,
and the thoughts that must have passed through the minds of those taking their final
breaths or who lived out their lives traumatized, dismembered, disabled or displaced.
When I returned from the store, I decided to think about all those people, in uniform or
in civilian clothes, who lost their lives because of a war. I thought about them intently.
I tried to imagine myself the dying victim or a close friend or relative of a deceased
loved one. I tried to think if there were any one day set aside by all people of the Earth
to honor all soldiers and civilians killed in all wars since the beginning of history. There
is none. But it made me wonder exactly how many men, women, and children, in or
out of uniform, have been killed in wars since the beginning of recorded time. If I could
discover that number, I vowed to remember them all and remember the cruel and often
unnecessarily sacrificed lives in the name of some patriotic, chauvinistic, religious, or
It was easy. There are many sources available. I could not find a total number, but rather
estimates for each and every war that has ever occurred on this planet. All I would
have to do is add up the numbers for each. I started inputting the numbers on my little
calculator, but there were not enough places before the decimal point to accommodate
the total. I borrowed a scientific calculator from a friend who promised me his device
would do the trick. I used only the lowest estimates for each war… and though a student
of history, I was shocked, appalled, and very saddened by how many wars there have
been in the history of our planet. And none of them was a “war to end all wars!”
The list was long. The numbers were staggering! You may as well have asked me to try
to count the stars visible to the naked eye late at night. I had to check off each number
as I put it into the calculator so I wouldn’t get confused. I finally came up with a total of
the lowest estimates of “casualties” (another sanitizing word) from war. Are you ready?
Once again, I remind you these are the lowest estimates available.
219,295,000 soldiers and civilians were killed in wars. In addition, 16,491,518 people
were victims of genocide. I found myself hoping that most of these poor souls were
killed instantly. I have not bothered to include those people who lived through these
wars but with missing limbs, brain damage, or other injuries. Unfortunately, too many
comprise the traumatized “walking” dead of our planet. They number more than the
I had to do the arithmetic a few times. While compiling the numbers, I was interrupted
by a neighbor walking by my screen door. He yelled, “Phil, Happy Memorial Day!” I
replied, “There’s nothing happy about it!” He answered gruffly, “Well if you’re going
to be a downer about it, then please don’t come to the barbeque tonight! Should I have
greeted you with ‘Phil, Sorrowful Memorial Day?’ ” And then he turned his head and
I enjoy a three-day weekend as much as the next person, but I just can’t seem to rise
to the occasion, if indeed, rising to this occasion was appropriate. Was I being too
negative? Was I ruining everyone’s holiday? Was I indeed the party pooper?
I contacted a friend of mine who is a veteran of a recent foreign war to ask what he
thought of this day. I quote him verbatim:
“I’m a veteran and we cringe at the ‘happy’ wishes too. Just smile and nod. They’re
products of their schooling. These are the same folks thanking us for fighting for their
right for free speech. They always look dumbfounded when I explain we’ve had that
right for years… not that they use it! Questioning the government has been replaced
with questioning the other political party. We act like the hippies drank the last of the
civil-disobedience and all that’s left is the kool-aid.”
I hadn’t expected that small rant about civil disobedience. But it did make me think
that if there were one day set aside by all nations to remember the consequences of
war, perhaps the world would have an “aha” moment. Perhaps they could go beyond
the numbers and visualize an individual soldier lying on the ground and looking down
to see a leg missing. Perhaps they could visualize a child slowly dying while the last of
his blood left the open wound. Perhaps they could feel the pain of a parent, a child, or a
friend at the loss of a loved one, and the insufferable grief which seems to linger forever.
Perhaps they would realize that cooperation and not competition is our natural state.
Perhaps they would realize that war is truly obsolete! Perhaps they would forgive
me for not being happy on this Memorial Day, but join with me by shedding tears
for such a waste of human life. Perhaps they would devote the entire day to asking
themselves, “What is wrong with us and how can we fix it!”