Memorial Day, 2021: Make it Matter
May 31, 2021 marks the passing of another Memorial Day in the United States. And although this day is often “celebrated” with family and friends gathering to cook outdoors and have a few drinks while lifting a toast to the many fallen soldiers that died to preserve our freedoms, it is a morose event by nature when you reflect upon the totality of death wrought by the wars the United States has sent our sons and daughters to fight in, many who never came back.
So, what is the collective sacrifice of these brave souls? According to a military.com article, “Since the Revolutionary War ended, 646,596 American troops have died in battle and more than 539,000 died from other, non-combat related causes.”
Let that sink in a moment. Over the course of a little more than two centuries, more than 1 million soldiers gave their lives for our country in one way or another. More than 1 million people never came marching home, never embraced their parents, never kissed their spouses or held their children in their arms. If lucky, they lay in cemeteries; if not so lucky, they remain “missing in action,” presumably under the long-ago buried trenches of France, the cold forests of Germany, the rain-soaked rice patties of Vietnam, or the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency estimates “more than 81,700 Americans remain missing from WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the Gulf Wars/other conflicts.” While no one knows for sure the fate of these soldiers, it is likely many perished in the “fog of war.”
The staggering sum of human suffering is both inescapable and unimaginable, especially for those of us who never served. It simply overwhelms the human condition. Yet, we can honor the fallen in a meaningful fashion beyond preserving their memories and the sadness they bring us.
We can honor them by keeping cooler heads when it comes to getting involved in military conflicts.
We can honor the death and sacrifice of our fallen by not putting our current soldiers in the same circumstances.
We can honor them by seeking every possibility that leads to peace and diplomacy rather than combat and death.
We can honor them by allowing them to return home to embrace their parents, kiss their spouses, and hold their children. And yes, I know many will gladly give their lives for their country, and I am truly grateful for their courage and selflessness.
But in the end, we should remember the words of the Union Army general William Tecumseh Sherman in his address to the graduating class of the Michigan Military Academy (19 June 1879):
“I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that someday you can use the skill you have acquired here. Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, War is Hell!“.
A Proper Perspective of Memorial Day
War is indeed hell, but we need not embrace a mentality of predestination for those currently serving in our armed forces. This Memorial Day, let’s honor those who paid the supreme price by ensuring their sons, daughters, and friends do not. I will leave you with the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower: “This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.”
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