Today is Memorial Day in the United States. The origins vary, but days of memorial to fallen soldiers of the American Civil War were observed shortly after the end of that conflict in the late 1860’s.
After World War I Memorial Day acknowledged not just the war dead of the Civil War, but of all conflicts in which America was or became involved. For most Americans this day is just one of a three day weekend, time for a family barbeque or other late spring outdoor activities. We tend to reserve our patriotism (or what there is left of it) for Independence Day on the 4th of July.
Memorial Day used to be a far more formal occasion with parades and solemn observes during which families would decorate the graves of loved ones who had served in the military. This is a day of mourning and I think we’ve lost that distinction.
To that end, let me explain why we mourn by providing you with a list of America’s war dead:
Revolutionary War- 4,435 American dead
War of 1812- 2,260 American dead
Mexican War- 13,283 American dead
Civil War- 364,511 Union dead
289,000 Confederate dead
Spanish-American War- 2,446 American dead
World War I- 116,516 American dead
World War II- 405,399 American dead
Korean War- 36,574 American dead
Vietnam War- 58,220 American dead
Persian Gulf War- 383 American dead
Since 1980 until 2008
and including the Persian Gulf War-
45,706 American dead
Total– 1,338,350 American dead
These Americans died in dispute or defense of our right to exist as a nation and uphold the daily freedoms upon which we rely.
(Sources: “American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics,” http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RL32492.pdf, and “Civil War Statistics,” http://www.phil.muni.cz/~vndrzl/amstudies/civilwar_stats.htm, any mistakes in sums or typography are my own.)
Whether or not we have family who served or whether we believe in bearing arms or not, our gratitude is still required to acknowledge the debt we owe those who willingly gave their lives for a purpose greater than themselves.
Human history is a series of conflicts punctuated by occasional bursts of peace and cooperation, or at least grudging armistice. We are not, by nature, a peaceful species. Peace requires reaching outside ourselves for the good of others. Ironically, war produces in those who serve the altruism to sacrifice for others around them in battle or for the ideal of a peaceful and prosperous homeland.
There are other reasons people go to war, but when you try to understand history the exceptions generally prove the rule. Look at the broad view, history is holistic and requires stepping back from the minutiae in order to understand historical trends and see the larger picture in full.
Please think on these things as you mourn today.