In the formerly United States at least, it's Memorial Day, the day on which we remember those who died in our country's wars in active service. It used to be May 30th; now it's the last Monday in May, which is today.
Traditionally, it's also considered to be the unofficial beginning of Summer in the U.S. Today's a genuinely hot day here, and the boats are on the lake, the trees are fully leafed out, and the robin in nest #1 has hatched her first brood. Cold April is a distant memory already.
On this day I try to remember that no one (or very few people, at least) wanted to give his or her life for their country. What they wanted to do was serve, then come home and grow old. Some of them didn't even want to serve, but got conscripted into it. Not only can they not speak for themselves, but no one can speak for them, either—this is what offends me about all the treacly, sentimental pap we tend to get bombarded with on days like this. Safe, live personages putting words into the mouths of the dead.
...Not the words I'd put there either. Personally, if I had realized I was about to lose the whole world and everything in it at age 19 in the hell of the Argonne Forest or the muck of Midway Atoll, I'd feel pretty ripped off. Who would choose to "pay the ultimate sacrifice"? Some live, some die, and who gets to survive and who must perish is a grim lottery, one that is mostly a matter of chance.
Along those lines, we can also be thankful that relatively few soldiers have died in recent decades, compared to costlier wars. Although that makes no difference at all to the men and women who were lost. Or their suffering families, who should also be in our thoughts today.
But here's the important thing: the war dead were called to serve, they answered, and then they paid the price. All honor to them. It's worth remembering that before the Battle of Midway, to name just one example, the U.S. mainland was distinctly threatened by the Japanese fleet; after Midway, that threat had effectively evaporated.
Whatever your opinions of war and service, we should save a few moments between beers, barbecue, family and fireworks today to contemplate the war dead.
It's their day, not ours.
ADDENDUM American wartime military casualties by war:
- American Revolutionary War 4,435
- War of 1812 2,260
- Mexican War 13,283
- American Civil War (estimated) 750,000
- Spanish American War 2,446
- World War I: 116,516
- World War II: 405,399
- Korea 36,576
- Vietnam 58,200
- Gulf War 382
- Iraq and Afghanistan 6,831
[Source: Historical Statistics of the United States (Millennial Edition), quoted by Samuelson, Robert J., in "The horror and honor of the Civil War on Memorial Day," Newsweek magazine, May 25, 2014. Samuelson gives the figure for Iraq and Afghanistan at 6,809 as of May 2014, so I looked to Wikipedia for an updated figure.
Further investigation indicates that most of these figures are total military deaths from all causes rather than direct combat casualties alone. The 750,000 figure for the American Civil War appears to come from a study by historian J. David Hacker published in Civil War History Volume 57 No. 4, December 2011. An article about the study in BBC News magazine (online) describes it as "a paper that used demographic methods and sophisticated statistical software to study newly digitised US census records from 1850 to 1880." —Ed.]
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Featured Comments from:
Mike Plews: "Memorial Day is a tough holiday for me to process. I'm a veteran, Army Security Agency from '67 to '71 but never got close to Vietnam. My father was in from 1923 to 1955 and saw a lot of combat in the 4th Armored Division in Europe. He is buried in the military cemetery in San Diego.
"My only remaining uncle was an 18-year-old POW in the Battle of the Bulge.
"Last September I had the pleasure of getting a little pissed with my cousin's husband who flew Dust Off in Vietnam.
"We just buried a old friend who suffered the kind of cascading organ collapse associated with Agent Orange exposure. His family found military bits and pieces all over his condo and asked me to come over and explain their significance. They told in interesting story. He had been a specialist in the 11th Armored Cavalry. He had a Combat Infantryman's Badge and three Bronze Stars. He never spoke of this to us. We all knew he had bad case of PTSD but he never went to the VA about it. He was a high school teacher and still in the closet and perhaps he feared being outed. We'll never know now.
"I am sharing this not to brag up my family history. It is to let you know where I am coming from.
"I believe the best Memorial Day address yet was given by Lieutenant General Lucien Truscott in 1945 at a military cemetery in Sicily. No full record of his actual remarks remains, only fragments as it was not written down. Truscott stepped up, waited for silence, turned his back on the crowd to face the dead and apologized."