War is horrible and we should allow it to horrify us.
War germinates seeds of civil discord. It handcuffs the national budget. It agitates the world and provokes decades of distrust.
But today, let us think first and foremost of war’s human toll.
Men and women realize numerous rewards by entering the military. Some welcome training and educational opportunities. Others value long-term financial and medical benefits. Many treasure the accompanying sense of camaraderie and patriotism.
Whatever military men and women receive in return for their service, we all know what they give. When they put on their uniforms, they are telling the Pentagon, the politicians and the American public that they stand ready for any duty they are assigned, even if it places them in harm’s way.
Memorial Day is the annual occasion when we officially honor those who died while serving their country. During the remaining 364 days each year, we are free to enjoy lives made comfortable by their sacrifices — without giving them much additional thought.
Soldiers and Marines returning from Iraq and Afghanistan often told interviewers about their difficult adjustment to home life among people who seemed oblivious to the faraway conflicts. When it comes to wars and those who fight them, “out of sight” seems to mean “out of mind.”
This disconnect is widened by statistical realities. The Pew Research Center finds the portion of Americans serving in the military is smaller now than at any time since the lull between the two world wars. “During the past decade, as the military has been engaged in the longest period of sustained conflict in the nation’s history, just one-half of one percent of American adults has served on active duty at any given time,” Pew reports. Since 1970, the U.S. population has grown from 200 million to 300 million, but active-duty armed forces have decreased from 3 million to 1.4 million.
Political scientist Danielle Allen identifies demographics, geography and politics as dividing lines between families with military connections and families without. Allen, an advocate of mandatory national service, observes that military service was “distributed pretty evenly across regions” until the draft ended in 1973. Now, numbers are concentrated in “red” states, particularly in the South.
But those who have served and died were not distant strangers. They were not our servants or proxies. They were our fellow citizens.
On Memorial Day, we should be mindful that amid the headstones there are no questions about “us” or “them.” Those who sacrificed did so for an entire nation.