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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?