Editorial – Remembering Victims: Memorial Day Urges Us to Remember Those Lost in War | editorial
In 1915, a lieutenant colonel and doctor in the Canadian Army suffered a terrible loss.
John McCrae served in the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium during World War I. Alexis Helmer died on May 2, 1915. He had been a member of McCrae’s unit as well as a friend.
The following day, McCrae disclosed his conflicting feelings about the print. His poem “In Flanders Fields” is legendary for the way it commemorates those who died in the war.
McCrae’s description of the poppies growing between the white crosses in his poem is a remarkable imagery. It evokes the dichotomy of what happened on the battlefield: life in the form of beautiful flowers sprouts between crosses marking the deaths of numerous soldiers as a result of the ferocity of armed conflict.
After the war, Moina used Michael McCrae’s imagery to create an indelible symbol. An American professor, Michael, stated that she would wear a red poppy year round to honor the war dead. Red Silk Poppies are now made and sold by veterans’ organizations to raise money for those who served our nation in uniform.
It’s likely that people up north have seen, or will soon see, someone from the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars handing out red poppies. As Memorial Day approaches, this is a fitting activity.
Like the red poppy, the annual holiday was created to commemorate those who lost their lives in military conflicts. In honoring our war dead, money raised by supporters’ veteran groups is used to help veterans. In this way, the red poppy becomes a symbol of our desire to commemorate the departed and care for the living.
The poet Walt Whitman understood what we lose in wartime. He reflected the sobering picture of the aftermath of the Civil War in The Million Dead, Too, Summ’d Up:
“The dead in this war – there they lie, scattering the fields and forests and valleys and battlefields of the South,” he wrote. “…the dead, the dead, the dead – our dead – or south or north, our all, (all, all, all, dear to me at last) – or east or west – Atlantic seaboard or Mississippi valley – somewhere they crawl.” d die, alone, in bushes, low ravines, or on the slopes of hills—(there in remote places their skeletons, bleached bones, tufts of hair, buttons, fragments of clothing are occasionally still found)—our young men who were once so handsome and so merry were taken from us – the son from the mother, the husband from the wife, the dear friend from the dear friend…”
Aside from the staggering number of Americans killed during the war, Whitman was particularly struck by a tragic trait shared by many of them.
“And everywhere among those countless graves — everywhere in the nation’s many military cemeteries… as then in the vast trenches, the encampments of the fallen, north and south, after the great battles — not just where the crushing trail passed those years, but Radiant ever since in all peaceful parts of the country – we see, and see, and for centuries to come, on monuments and tombstones, singly or en masse, by the thousands or tens of thousands, the significant word: UNKNOWN.”
We must not allow those who died to save our nation to remain unknown. Memorial Day is a time to follow the extraordinary example of veterans’ organizations. As we remember the sacrifice of those we lost, we should attend to the needs of those who remain alive. The integrity of our society and the continued security of our nation depend on no less.