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This Memorial Day, step back and remember how far we've come


For the past few years, I've seen the social media post making the rounds reminding everyone of the semantic differences between Memorial Day and Veterans Day (and the non-holiday observance of Armed Forces Day). In practice, most of us have probably broadened the definition of Memorial Day to include deceased veterans who survived combat and eventually died of other causes, leaving Veterans Day to living veterans. With a little perspective, it's easy to see why.

Memorial Day originated out of Decoration Day, a series of commemorations that arose shortly after the Civil War. Between the United States and the Confederacy, over 200,000 Americans died in combat against one another, not to mention hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties. The World Wars were just as deadly: in a little over a year, over 100,000 servicemen lost their lives in the trenches of Europe. Then came World War II, in which another 100,000 combatants lost their lives each year, 400,000 in total, with 72,000 still unaccounted for to this very day.

The last living World War I veteran, Cpl. Frank Buckles, died in 2011, age 110. Most of the living veterans of World War II are in their 90s, and since a person who would have known a war casualty before they enlisted and still remember them would be in their 80s at least, it is increasingly rare to have personally known someone who died in war. Plus, the nature of war—in which most of the frontline combatants were young men recruited into service before they fathered children—means that few of those who died in war would have direct descendants alive today.

We lost about 36,000 men in the Korean Conflict over three years. Over the entire course of the Vietnam War, there were fewer than 60,000 dead on our side. We lost fewer than 4,000 in Iraq in eight years, fewer than 2,500 in Afghanistan in two decades. The town where I live, fortunately, had no deaths in the War on Terror; the next town over proudly declares itself the home of its lone Iraq war casualty, who was killed in action.

What a change.

The idea of remembering the fallen has now become something far more abstract than it used to be, when communities across America knew of multiple deaths in war. Now, we may know someone who knows someone. Part of it was the changes in how wars are fought: gone are the toxic trenches and chemical weapons of World War I, and we haven't had to use a nuclear bomb since the end of World War II. Part of it is that medical care has improved dramatically, in that wounds that would have killed previous generations of soldiers either directly or through infections no longer do. That said, part of it is also a world that has grown more averse to wars: the Soviet Union and communist China never got directly involved in Korea nor Vietnam, and despite some scares during the Kennedy administration in the early 1960s, both sides knew that a potential World War III could lead to disastrous consequences. Our modern wars have largely been ones of waiting it out: Afghan warlords constantly waiting out foreign and domestic combatants, Ukrainians fighting off and resisting Russian invasion from within, and so on.

Our naysayers would say—and they have a point—that we have also not decisively won a war since World War II. In the wake of that war, Japan is now a key American ally, and the previously belligerent states in Europe are now in peaceful union. Yet our relations with Russia and China are uneasy to this day, and regime changes in Iraq and Afghanistan were largely toppled after our departure. It's hard to look at that and to say, should we have done more? Should we have fought harder, possibly reinstituted the draft, and inevitably led to the far greater loss of American life? Could we have done so? Our population has grown, but much of that is due to increases in longevity, since the baby boom that followed World War II went bust long ago.

But reality is, fewer soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen have died. We are more at peace now, albeit an uneasy peace, than we were 100 years ago. So this Memorial Day, take note of how far we've come.

Source for war death statistics:


Good essay, @jmyrlefuller


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