06/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Genuine Memorial Day

Exactly 140 years ago next week, America observed its first Decoration Day, meant to commemorate the lives lost by Union soldiers in the Civil War. Not until after World War I did what we now call Memorial Day come into being, a remembrance of all of the warrior lives lost in each of America's wars. Sadly, just as Christmas and Hanukkah for far too many have become associated with nothing so much as shopping and parties, Memorial Day for some has been bleached of meaning, merely the first of summer's three long weekends, kicked off by the Indy 500. When that checkered flag drops at the Brickyard, the season of Hollywood blockbusters will have already commenced, with Avatars battling Monsters vs. Aliens for box office supremacy. But it is up to each of us to engage in the bigger battle, for mindshare and individual action -- and Memorial Day is a great first beachhead.

Our nation is at war, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and no matter what one thinks of those engagements, we grieve when the faces of the fallen are shown in our newspapers, when the roster of the dead runs as a crawl across our television screens. This year, there is a way of reflecting further on the sacrifices war forces on soldiers and civilians.

Great documentaries are superb entertainment that can connect us with the past and inspire our future action. That's why SnagFilms is presenting a slate of films this Memorial Day weekend that enable us all to honor the fallen, and to reflect on our own duties of remembrance and conduct. As always, the non-fiction films we offer are free to view online, and you can easily "snag" any widget from the SnagFilms site to create a "virtual movie theater" on your own website, blog, or page on Facebook, MySpace or other social network services -- you can start by taking the one below.

Featured films include Return To Tarawa, the story of a veteran of one of the bloodiest battles ever fought by U.S. Marines, who returns to that Pacific atoll only to discover that what should be hallowed ground has become a garbage dump -- and that the bones of warriors remain in place, unidentified and apparently ignored, at least by our government. Leon Cooper won't forget, and the film outlines his last battle: to clean up "Bloody Tarawa" and venerate the dead.

Nanking is the highly-honored documentary that picked up its Peabody Award this week -- now online for the first time. It brilliantly depicts the heroism of civilians just prior to World War II who tried to prevent a Holocaust from occurring when Japanese troops marched into the then-capital of China in 1937. Nanking reminds us that bravery is not the sole province of the soldier, and that moral and physical courage can come from unlikely sources.

In Vietnam, Long Time Coming, U.S. and Vietnamese soldiers embark on a 1600-mile bicycle tour throughout Vietnam, reflecting with their former enemies on our long war. A similar approach to post-war understanding, On Common Ground, tells the story of American and German World War II veterans meeting 55 years later on the very battlefield where once they'd fought.

Other Memorial Day films featuring World War II themes include Battle of the Midway, and Pearl Harbor: Day of Infamy. East LA Marine tells the story of US Marine PFC Guy Gabaldon, who captured over 1500 Japanese soldiers and civilians -- single-handedly. For those who wish to reflect on Memorial Day along the contours of its original creation, SnagFilms is showing Arlington Field of Honor, which offers a tour of America's most sacred warrior graveyard. Other films in the special offering include Devil Dog Diaries (National Geographic's inside look at a unit in action during Desert Storm), and So Very Far from Home, the true stories that were the basis of Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun.

Memorial Day is the kick-off of the summer season. Enjoy the sunshine, the beach, the barbecues and blockbusters. But also take the time to watch and share one of these and other films -- with an uncle who served, a neighbor with a niece overseas, or a teenager only dimly aware of the holiday's heritage -- to honor this weekend's special meaning. And use the comment space below to share your own Memorial Day memories.

Rick Allen is the CEO of SnagFilms.