Each Memorial Day, James Dubinsky takes some time to reflect.
A retired U.S. Army veteran and now an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech who works with veteran communities, Dubinsky said each Memorial Day he remembers friends who died while serving, often by reading what other veterans have written. He also reflects on the meaning of Memorial Day.
The holiday was first commemorated as Decoration Day a few years after the Civil War when veterans used flowers to decorate the graves of Union soldiers who died in combat. Veterans and families from the Confederate states held their own celebrations as well. By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were held on May 30 throughout the nation. It was not until after World War I that the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Memorial Day has a powerful national meaning in how it has been, on some level, not only a day of remembrance but also a day of reconciliation,” Dubinsky said. “Given the partisan divide in our country, we might do well to give this holiday more visibility. Regardless of one’s political perspective, this holiday could be a topic for study and reflection in all history classes. As a lesson in civics or civic engagement, everyone could learn something of value.”
In general, veterans often commemorate Memorial Day privately, in reflection and prayer, Dubinsky said. He reads and reflects on poems about war and poems written by veterans to learn about healing from these conflicts. Some of those poems include Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Decoration Day” and “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, a Canadian soldier and doctor in World War I.
“While it is a national holiday and many celebrate with picnics and parades, Americans would benefit from taking a few moments to stop and reflect on the meaning of the day – why it exists, when it came into being, what it says about our country, and how it came to honor those who died to preserve it,” Dubinsky said.
“As a country, we might most effectively honor the many who have died for us by focusing on what all of us, the ‘we’ in ‘We the People,’ can do to preserve the U.S. they died serving. On this day, rather than focusing on what divides us or on elevating differences, Americans might focus on what unites us and on respecting each person’s humanity, particularly those who serve to protect us.”
James Dubinsky, associate professor of English, is the founding director of the Department of English’s Professional Writing Program and Virginia Tech’s VT-Engage. He helped to shape the first liberal arts PhD at Virginia Tech. He is the lead faculty member for the Veterans in Society initiative, which supports the scholarly understanding of veterans among citizens.