May opens and closes with national days of honor Mother's Day and Memorial Day -- days which were linked by history but de-coupled by purpose. Both originated in the immense loss of life in the U.S. Civil War. Yet one of the memorial days captured the national imagination and took root in many places, while the other did not and morphed into a sentimental simulacrum of its original inspiration.
The taproot of Mother's Day is active resistance to war. In 1870 Julia Ward Howe having witnessed the human carnage and devastation of the Civil War -- lobbied for a national Mother's Day for Peace and called for women to oppose all forms of war. Though she never succeeded, the first national Mother's Day, declared by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914, was inspired by the commitment of a young Appalachian homemaker Anna Jarvis. Jarvis worked to improve sanitary conditions (a major cause of disease and death) on both sides of the Civil War and later fostered reconciliation between her Union and Confederate neighbors.
Memorial Day, which is also called Decoration Day because of the tradition of decorating the graves of war veterans, is dedicated to remembering those who have died as soldiers in the nation's wars. It originated seemingly spontaneously in many towns during the Civil War and was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868. After World War 1, Memorial Day was extended to honor all military war dead. Given that Memorial Day is part of a 3-day weekend each May, the VFW and some members of Congress are concerned that
honoring soldiers who died in war has been overshadowed by the holiday weekend. They are lobbying to have the traditional day of remembrance stand on its own.
Thus, while Mother's Day for Peace devolved comfortably into a day charged with sentiment but devoid of social content, Memorial Day has retained its military character and has staunch supporters working to boost its standing.
These bookends of May, with their common history but divergent intent and outcomes, raise some questions. Why did a Mother's Day for Peace fail to capture the public imagination while Memorial Day flourished immediately? Is dying for one's country in an unjust war such as the war in Vietnam and now Afghanistan, or an avoidable war such as the war in Iraq, or a senseless war such as World War 1 an honorable way to die? How do we remember those who actively gave their lives in war without validating the organized violence of war? What of the rest of the war dead of which an estimated 90% are innocent civilians are they remembered?