Memorial Day was not imagined to honor veterans, or patriotism, or politicians or the sorts of war heroes who appear in television commercials for the United Services Automobile Association or the Navy Federal Credit Union
To be alive on Memorial Day is an obligation – especially for veterans. Memorial Day is the brief moment before our golden summers when it is our sacred duty to consider how we came to be so lucky as to be here now in this increasingly flawed but still great and free country. Memorial Day is when we must remember the bodies.
This annual obligation to remember emerged spontaneously in both the North and the South in the spring of 1864 – about nine or ten months after Gettysburg, in the midst of the war that resulted when we took our principles so seriously that we went to war with ourselves. Women in both the States of America joined into groups to decorate the graves of the war’s dead. As many as 850,000 men died in the War Between the States. Four-hundred-seventy-six thousand men were wounded. One in 13 soldiers returned home missing at least one limb. All but four members of the student body of the University of Mississippi died. Most of them died at the same place at the same time, on the last day of Gettysburg, during a human wave attack called Pickett’s Charge.
Four hundred thousand men disappeared – into the earth – because there was no one to claim their rotting bodies. A few tens of thousands of German and Irish immigrants died of malaria against which they had no immunity. The immigrants died because other young men paid to have them fight and die for them. Fifty-one thousand men died at Gettysburg. One in five of the Yankees or Confederates deployed in that war died. Everyone knew someone who died, so the obligation to remember was hardly a duty at all.
Forty-five hundred Americans died in the American Revolution; 2,300 in the War of 1812; about 13,500 died in the Mexican War – the war that created the American Southwest; and another 2,500 died in the Spanish American War in Cuba and the Philippines. One-hundred-sixteen-thousand-five-hundred-sixteen died in the First World War and another 405,399 in the following World War – about one in every 40 deployments in both those wars. Thirty-six-thousand-five-hundred-seventy-four died in Korea;. Fifty-eight-thousand-two-hundred-nine died in Vietnam – about one in every 58 deployed. Three-hundred-eighty-three died in the Gulf War and 6,845 Americans have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The casualties for the war George W. Bush started amount to about one death for every 380 deployments which means that the longest war in American History is also a war in which our soldiers have been unlikely to know someone who actually died. That may be a mixed blessing.
If you have been in a war you understand that they are not at all as they are usually dramatized. They are much bigger and louder. They are muddy and your rifle jams. The food is bad and all the colonels are insane. And then some kid you know runs past engulfed in flames. They are all about as glorious as a hurricane. There is no wisdom to be gained from them.
The only wisdom to be gained is in recollecting the bodies. Memorial Day is when we are morally obliged to take a few moments to do that.
Enjoy your ride. Enjoy your barbecue. That is why they died. Try to remain handcuff free. That is also why they died.