There have been more than a million of us who died in all the wars our nation has fought, from Lexington and Concord to Fallujah. Some died in battle and some of disease. More than half of all the Americans lost in our wars died killing each other, in what some still call The War Between the States.
Not all were heroes. But most died very young. Many had never been kissed, never fathered a child, never really found out what they wanted to do with their lives.
Since Vietnam, Memorial Day has become politicized to some extent. Those who opposed that war – or this war – tend to roll their eyes at military parades, or anything that seems to celebrate war.
Others give speeches claiming that Abraham Lincoln, say, would tell us to hang tough. But actually, the record shows that Lincoln may have been our Supreme Commander in the Civil War, but he was more bitterly against the Mexican War than Howard Dean was against Iraq, For decades, politicians of all stripes have sought to hijack Memorial Day for their own political purposes.
And that ought to be seen as totally wrong. War, Clausewitz said, is a continuation of diplomacy by other means. Actually, war marks a total failure of politics and diplomacy. We exist as a nation because, way back when, young men died for that idea. Whatever your politics, we are still here because others know we would die to defend what we have. Somebody is standing along a border somewhere right now, defending your right to play softball and eat potato salad today.
We have been very lucky in our wars. We have lost fewer men and less property than almost any other nation. The Russians lost more men in the single battle of Stalingrad than we have lost in all our wars since the beginning of time.
Four hundred thousand Americans died in World War II, mostly in Europe. But twenty-seven million Russians died. I have seen their cemeteries, and young children guarding them with loaded weapons.
Nobody wants war, our politicians like to say. Well, somebody must, because wars keep happening. We ought to go out today and stroll among the graves, and wonder what these men would have done and who they would have become.
Today, by the way, would have been the 89th birthday of one of those World War II veterans, who was injured when his boat was sunk; he towed a badly burned shipmate through the water for miles.
Eventually they were saved. His older brother volunteered for a secret mission to destroy Nazi missiles.
That mission failed, and the man died, and the younger brother had to go after the job his father wanted the dead son to have.
The surviving son’s name was John F. Kennedy. When they buried him, what his wife said might apply to all the veterans today:“Now he is a myth when he would rather have been a man.”