This is an ancient holiday, going back to Greece. In this country it began officially as "Decoration Day" after the Civil War. Back then (and in many smaller places today) people tended the graves of their own instead of paying to have this done. Once a year folks not only made sure that the graves were tended but also strewn with flowers. General John Logan declared
The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.
In 1971, now Memorial Day, was declared by The Congress to be a national holiday.
This isn't new to most of you. In my neighborhood someone has placed small flags at all four corners of each intersection. At one of the chat boards I frequent someone has begun a thread to honor the dead, military or not. Both of these, while well meaning, miss the point.
This is the time to remember, to honor our war dead. You all know what Arlington National Cemetary looks like, the majesty of the Tomb of the Unknowns. But every part of this nation is home to smaller local National Cemetaries where veterans are buried. They are often small, ancient, and haunting. This one is in California.
Sometime this year find one near you and wander through it. Or talk to your parents and grandparents about who died in the old wars. Maybe you will discover ancestors who are buried nearby. (I have people buried at Gettysburg, for example.) Look at the headstones, think about the parents and brothers and sisters and spouses and children of those buried there. Make them real.
All this is emotional tripe you say? Hokey? Unnecessarily sentimental? Ok. Instead read some history about an ancient war, ancient being anything before you were born. Understand what the war was like for those involved in it. Or learn about the events and politics that led up to the war. Or the impact on the home front.
Whatever you do, let it inform your thinking. When your President wants to put this nation into a war, or wants to call the struggle with Islamic fundamentalists a permanent war, or uses the language of war with as much facility as he uses the language of sports, be wary. Understand what it means for everyone involved as well as our nation. And say your piece. Bring your informed judgement to the voting booth. And remember that it matters.