Another Memorial Day at war

A version of this essay ran on May 30, 2010.

Millions of Americans hardly notice that their country is at war. That’s worth remembering this coming Monday, Memorial Day. It is common to lament that federal holidays, from Martin Luther King’s birthday to Veterans’ Day, are now more about long weekends and department store sales than anything else. The failure to commemorate the war dead, however, has a particularly corrosive effect on the country, for once we forget the price of combat, it becomes all too easy to allow others — and other people’s children — to pay it.

In the beginning, after the Civil War, it was called Decoration Day — an occasion set aside for tending the graves of the war dead. General John A. Logan issued Order Number 11, calling on the country to “let no … neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.” But we have forgotten, and one reason is that so few of us — I include myself — have any direct connection to those who are fighting now.

The military has become another country, a place where a disproportionate number of often disadvantaged young Americans go to find their way. At the same time, an all-volunteer force has produced a highly professional officer class, and many children of veterans enlist to carry on the tradition of their fathers. The burden of military sacrifice is thus isolated. Wars become distant, casualties go little-noticed. Ironies abound. We have grown more hawkish as a country. The percentage of people saying that war is sometimes necessary rose from 44 percent during Vietnam to 61 percent during the Iraq war surge. Yet those who do the fighting make up an ever-smaller percentage of the population.  Less than one half of one per cent of Americans are on active duty today. By comparison, during World War II, that figure was nearly 9 percent.

War and security, if they register at all, register low in surveys about the most important issues America faces. General Logan said that we ought to guard the graves of the dead with “sacred vigilance.” But we should be vigilant long before the graves are dug, too — in the debates and decisions about how we project force, and who fights, and why. “The beginning of the end of war,” wrote the novelist Herman Wouk, “lies in remembrance.” But what happens if Americans know so little of war that they have nothing to remember?

 
SUGGESTED STORIES

Comments

  • http://twitter.com/CJFloyd49 CJ Floyd

    Well said Mr. Meacham.  Well said.

    This weekend I shall remember in my own
    private way the boys who went with me in to the jungle of Vietnam.  We
    called it “the Big Green,” or “Indian Country.” 
    We were after all in the cavalry.  I came home whole and unharmed.
     At least I had two of everything I was supposed to have two of, and ten
    fingers and toes. The Almighty has been kind to me and over the decades the
    dreams have faded and I have to look at photos to remember clearly what our
    faces looked like when we were boys.  As
    the dreams faded so too did the confusion, fear and guilt.  I volunteered.
     I went, not because I actually believed
    in all the noble ideas and concepts adults then told me I was fighting to
    defend, but because callow young men believe they are immortal and there is
    glory and nobility in answering the trumpets’ call.  The comrades I knew best who came home in
    body bags, or whose bodies had been torn asunder and came home crippled had
    been drafted.  Conscripted into the
    nation’s service, some came hesitantly others with degrees of reluctance.  They were unwilling soldiers, but by in large
    they were good soldiers.  I have come to
    believe that our all volunteer army is not good for this country.  It has allowed us to engage in wars we should
    not be engaged in and to extend those wars too long.  If as a nation we are unwilling to draft our
    sons and daughters, (our grandchildren) and have them “serve in harm’s way,” then
    we do not have the courage of conviction that should be necessary to send an
    army into war.  If we do not have a faith
    equal to that of Abraham that what we are doing is worth the possible sacrifice
    of our own children in the land of Moriah, then we should not allow the
    children of others who “volunteer” to be sacrificed.

  • jan

    I thought we would be smarter and more careful about picking battles and wars not forced on us after Vietnam.  I was wrong.  I agree, we as a nation have become more hawkish and it worries me because we can’t afford the amount of money that we’re spending and we can’t afford the cost in human potential that this is costing us. 

  • Jerome Gau

    In regard to the Memorial Day Concert, you did prove the Korean War is the “forgotten war”.  The word “Korea” was mentioned once.  No information as to when, or how many lives were lost or how long it lasted.  As a Korea Veteran it is upsetting.  This year is the 60th anniversary of the beginning of that “forgotten” war.      

       Jerome Gau

  • http://livingbattlefield.org/ Heidi

    Sadly, ‘The Valiant’ of  the last unambiguous war, WWII, are leaving us at an alarming rate. This weekend many PBS stations have aired our trilogy, ‘the American road to Victory’ a three part series, which takes viewers on a series of battlefield tours from D-Day, to Holland and The Bulge. Hearing the veterans chilling words, while standing in the exact locations of battle, brings home the sacrifices of ‘The Greatest generation’. It has been an incredible project for us and one that has left an indelible mark on every member of the production team. We salute these great heroes on this Memorial Day

  • Blabla

    Dampen the festering hypocrisy by establish this rule:
    - By voting “YES” (to the question “is war sometimes necessary”) then you automatically enlist yourself in the front lines of the particular war being waged at the time of the survey or referendum.

     

  • Blabla

    Dampen the festering hypocrisy by establish this rule:
    - By voting “YES” (to the question “is war sometimes necessary”) then you automatically enlist yourself in the front lines of the particular war being waged at the time of the survey or referendum.

     

  • Vitrauxdereims

    Dampen the festering hypocrisy by establishing this rule:
    - if you vote “YES” (to the question “is war sometimes necessary?”)then you are also automatically enlisting yourself in the front lines of the particular war being waged or fought at the time of the survey or referendum.

  • Georgehrice

    It would seem to me, that if congress declares a war, a automatic draft should be enacted.  I think that would give politicians a pause to reflect, ”  do we really want a war ?” and have all Americans involved. We have been in three unnecessary wars, one of which is the longest in our history.  All costing enormous amounts of money. The military seems to want only a volunteer army, but they are suffering repeated deployments and lack of manpower. With a draft, we all will be involved, which is as it should be.  

  • Georgehrice

    It would seem to me, that if congress declares a war, a automatic draft should be enacted.  I think that would give politicians a pause to reflect, ”  do we really want a war ?” and have all Americans involved. We have been in three unnecessary wars, one of which is the longest in our history.  All costing enormous amounts of money. The military seems to want only a volunteer army, but they are suffering repeated deployments and lack of manpower. With a draft, we all will be involved, which is as it should be.  

  • http://twitter.com/CharlesCampbell Charles E. Campbell

    6-18-11

    Hi Jon

    I liked your commentary on the last mountain documentary.  I’ve tried to share innovations with your show, politicians and other news media that could reduce the US and the world’s dependence on coal for energy.  Need To Know along with everyone else ignores my communications.  I wonder why?  I will continue to share innovative solutions as long as you talk about problems.  

    I expect you, Need To Know Producers and editors to ignore this attempt as well.  I once thought Public Television had a responsibility to listen to those individuals like myself, without a voice and ignored by mainstream media.  I now know better.  

    Solution: My renewable energy startup company, Allen Hydro Energy Corporation (AHEC) http://www.ahecEnergy.com has an innovative process to generate large-scale hydroelectricity within a 70-Story Building that can be constructed downtown in any large metropolitan city.  By using the same stored water repeatedly and 40 Francis Turbine Generator, AHEC can generate enough clean energy to reduce the US and global demand for coal.  Innovations like this will someday receive the media exposure it deserves and attract the CleanTech funding, but more importantly, it will save our environment.

    Charles E. Campbell, Founder & CEO

    Allen Hydro Energy Corporation (AHEC)

    ahecgreen@live.com

  • http://twitter.com/CharlesCampbell Charles E. Campbell

    My new eBook makes changes to the United States Constitution.  The Revised Amended Constitution for the United States of America for the 21st Century is available at http://www.mymoneybudget.com
    It makes changes to the second and other amendments.  It legalizes Marijuana 18.5 and removes all incentives for slavery in the 13th Amendment.  The US Constitution is a flaw document and if we are to have a better future in the 21st Century, our foundation must be fixed and author C. Earl Campbell DA 3rd had the courage to do it.  Most media is trying to pretend it doesn’t exist. The ideas are too revolutionary to be ignored.

    C. Earl Campbell DA 3rd
    http://www.mymoneybudget.com