Not far from my house is a 1924 statue of an American soldier erected in memory of the dead. I have never seen any flowers on that statue. (There is a picture of it here, under “Woodland Park, Seattle.”) The inscription under the statue says: “1898-1902: To the memory of the soldiers, sailors, and Marines who gave their lives in defense of our flag in the war with Spain, the Philippine Insurrection, and the China Relief Expedition.”
Those missions are mostly forgotten, and none had much to do with the usual Memorial Day rhetoric about Americans who gave their lives in defense of freedom. The bloodiest of them was the Philippine Insurrection, in which 4,196 Americans died. They did not fall to protect American freedom, but to suppress Philippine freedom. The war against Spain was not about American freedom either.
My neighbor has a photo on his dining-room wall of a relative who died in World War I. Did the soldier die in defense of American freedom? Not really. From my reading of history, World War I was not about American freedom, and was a war Americans probably should have stayed out of. But Congress voted to go in, 82-6 in the Senate and 373-50 in the House, and 116,516 Americans died.
Should the wisdom of the war matter on Memorial Day? If you want to tell the dead you’re glad they fought, I suppose it does matter. If you want to honor the dead, it doesn’t. Someone in the family died—someone of the same blood as you. He or she went to war when the government called, and didn’t come back. Memorial Day is the day for the living to remember the dead. That is all it need be. It does not require celebration of the fight, and what it was about.