It's Memorial Day today, a United States holiday dating back to 1865, when freedmen decorated the graves of Union soldiers. Throughout the rest of the 19th century and into the 20th, Decoration Day was a time to specifically honor the sacrifices of Union soldiers who fought and died in the Civil War. After World War I, it became a time for Americans to commemorate all their fallen soldiers, and the term Memorial Day became more and more prevalent. In the 1960s, Congressional bills formalized the holiday's title as Memorial Day, and established it as the last Monday of every May.
So now you're here on a three day weekend, reading a blog. Maybe you watched a parade today, listened to a ceremony, and are having a barbecue. The kids are running around, playing in some of the first hot, sunny weather the midwest has seen this year. Dogs are getting disproportionate amounts of exercise today, and the chittering robins are back on your porch, flitting around from branch to deck to feeder in their ever-bobbing daily routine. Routine. It's a summer holiday--the summer holiday, really--ushering in warm weather and that comfortable summertime pace of life when you saunter from one air-conditioned environment to another before dipping into a pool or breathing in some affirming grill smoke.
And where are the decorations on the graves of soldiers? What are you remembering today? Did you wake up and think of the sacrifices of others today, or did you rush to get that chicken marinade started?
I'm a firm believer in the power of entertainment. What we enjoy in our leisure time, and why, informs the choices we make, the mental habits we feed, and the lives we lead. Being a nerd isn't just a vapid way to spend disposable income and fill free time. It's about exciting the mind and the heart in a youthful, exuberant way that ultimately uplifts and edifies. So today I have a selection of nerd-approved media--games, books, and movies--to help jog your Memorial Day into something more than the first barbecue of the summer.
Some of these pieces of entertainment will doubtless seem trivial, almost crassly so, compared to the others. They are not selected on equal footing, either by appropriateness to my purpose or by overall merit. Instead, they are selected as a cross-section of media that can all be used to help stir your thoughts towards the true purpose of today. Every nerd should be intimately familiar with at least a couple of these, but everyone--nerd or not--should be able to read and appreciate the import of at least one item on this list. They aren't necessarily cerebrally concerned with sacrifice or Memorial Day itself, but they all lend themselves quite well to introspection on this day of remembrance.
Ken Burns: The Civil War (documentary mini-series)
Since 1990, Kens Burns' nine part series on the Civil War has dominated the subject, and for good reason. Presented with a deliberate pace, evocative sound and visuals, it takes viewers through the five years of the war with a careful attention to the personalities of both the famous figures who defined history and the average men and women who made history. In its constant wealth of quotes, journal entries, and memoirs from Americans throughout the war, few documentaries do such a great job of making history and the sacrifices of our forebears real.
Memoir 44 (board game)
Few board games are both so accessible and so historically concerned as Memoir 44. A board game by Days of Wonder, the makers of the family classic Ticket To Ride, Memoir 44 is a wargame that recreates the seminal battles of World War II. Each scenario for the game starts with a paragraph or two of description of the historical setting, which frames each game in concrete terms that helps to bring the key moments of the war to life. The rules are extremely intuitive and straight-forward, allowing kids as young as 8 to play, and games rarely last more than an hour and are frequently much shorter. These two factors mean that Memoir 44 can not only be a keystone family night game, but it can easily serve as a valuable illustration to children when they are first learning about World War II. And for the rest of us, it's a vibrant reminder of the moments that laid the groundwork for our modern era, which we forget all too often.
Captain America (comic book series)
The origin story of Captain America, both as a character and as a comic, is a story of enduring patriotism. Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby a full year before the United States of America entered the war, their comic was met with a mixed response at first. Depicting a staunchly political, war-oriented plot, the comic predicted America getting pulled into the war a year before Pearl Harbor, and anti-war groups sent the pair hate mail and threats for it. Time and events proved them right, though, and Captain America became one of the most popular superheroes of all time. But beyond being another story of a guy in tights, Captain America is--and always has been--about personal endurance in doing what is right, a symbol of the generation that created him and the soldiers he leads in the comics' plots.
Halo (video game series)
The Halo video game series is about the personal sacrifices of soldiers. It gets overlooked in the vanity of the FPS(first-person shooter) genre and the spectacle of the science-fiction settings, but its story is a tribute to the sacrifices of soldiers throughout history. The main character is a class of soldier that invokes the Spartans of Thermopylae, the Fall of Reach parallels the Battle of the Alamo, and the celebrity of the main character evokes a general patriotism in humanity that smacks of Captain America himself. The games Halo 3, Halo: ODST, and Halo: Reach in particular all feature narratives that give sensitive honor to these themes, and the novels (especially those by Eric Nylund) elaborate on them by emphasizing the personal grotesqueries the Spartans have endured and the casual apathy they receive from the people they regularly protect.
Red Dawn (movie, soon to be remade. Spoiler alert)
This soon-to-be-remade classic from 1984 is literally a memorial movie. Virtually all the movie's protagonists die over the course of the movie, not all nobly, but the determination and gung-ho violence of the movie is just sensitive enough to make the film's ending shot of the monument to the resistance resonate on a real, gripping level. Considering it is an 80s commie-killing action movie, I am actually surprised that John Milius exhibited the restraint he did in making such a dramatically even-handed film, relatively speaking.
The Things They Carried (book)
Tim O'Brien's book The Things They Carried is a life-changing, heart-rending book. A series of short stories about 'fictional real events', the book is a series of endearing, disgusting contradictions that help to illustrate but not explain the trials and depth of personal loss those who served during Vietnam endured. It's a tough book to get through, like so many truly great stories, but the emotional fatigue I felt when I put the book down is priceless. There's a vague sense of enlightenment that comes from reading this book that always puts me in mind that this is what Memorial Day should always and ever entail.
These aren't substitutes--or even progenitors--of patriotism, pride, or anything like it. These are examples of how the things we nerds love and revel in have the capstones for introspection of all we owe to those who died for our security and freedoms--in times past and time yet to come.