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Honoring the Dead on Memorial Day
Published on Saturday, May 27, 2006 by Foreign Policy in Focus
Honoring the Dead on Memorial Day
by Col. Daniel Smith, U.S. Army (Ret.)
 

For millions of Americans Memorial Day is an extra day off work at the end of May. It's picnics in the park or by a lake. It's huge sales at stores: the more you spend the more you save. It's the end of school, the beginning of the summer holidays, and higher gasoline prices—if that's possible this year. It's a day at the ballpark, if one lives in the right city, where who wins may be only slightly more important than the sweet sensation of biting into an authentic, mustard-covered stadium hot dog. It's noisy parades and, for those residing near military bases, displays of military equipment and military air shows.

Although each of these activities reflects 21st century Americana, none captures the true, traditional meaning of Memorial Day: remembering and honoring those who have fallen—and continue to fall—fighting our nation's wars. None captures the image of row upon row of white crosses or rank upon rank of simple white headstones at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, DC.

Those who visit a military post, who listen to speeches, or who go to a ball game may be asked to pause for a moment of silence to remember the fallen and those currently in harm's way. But such reflection, if done, will be short and, unless one is a combat veteran, devoid of context—of the horrors that constitute the daily experience of war for both combatants and noncombatants or the heartbreak endured by those who lose loved ones.

That so many spend so little time noting the real message of Memorial Day may be due in part to the fact that it is observed as a matter of routine each year on the last Monday of May. Repetition, after all, dulls the imagination and our sensitivity to nuance. Moreover, this Memorial Day may be more pro forma than those of the last few years. No special anniversary occurs in 2006 such as last year's “last hurrah” by veterans marking the 60 th anniversary of the end of World War II. In fact, no U.S. war ended in a year whose last digit is a six (although two of the 18 campaigns waged against Native Americans terminated in such a year).

Yet precisely because some of the hoopla may be missing this Memorial Day, it affords an opportunity for greater reflection about what war in general does and what the present wars in particular are doing.

U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan since October 2001. In these 67 months—a period longer than a benchmark interest-free auto loan—296 U.S. military personnel and 78 allied soldiers have been killed. The number of Afghan civilians and security personnel—military and police—are uncounted. In 2005, 99 Americans died; so far in 2006, U.S. military fatalities total 37, a slower pace than in 2005.Washington is redeploying about 2,500 troops as other NATO countries add 9,000 and expand their area of operations into the volatile provinces along the border with Pakistan. The expanded NATO force has already been bloodied, and the increase in attacks by the former ruling Taliban bodes ill for any rapid withdrawal of foreign troops.

Thirty-eight months after the first munitions hit Baghdad in March 2003, Iraq has a “permanent” elected government and a four-month window to consider and incorporate changes to the constitution written last year. But like Afghanistan, Iraq as a free, functional democracy is not necessarily a “slam dunk,” an assured outcome. Even the new prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, acknowledged that coalition military forces would be needed to keep Baghdad and Anbar provinces from spinning out of control. Al-Maliki did put down a marker of 18 months from May 2006 for Iraqi security forces to assume responsibility for security throughout the entire country.

Translation: expect the fatality count to hit 2,500 sometime in June 2006 and eventually reach 3,000 before the end of 2007—al Maliki's end date. This may be an optimistic prediction, but the pace of fatalities for the United States has slowed marginally, as the following chart indicates—albeit this circumstance gives little comfort to spouses, children, parents, and friends of the 2,459 fatalities (or the 17,869 wounded).

First fatality

March 21, 2003

 

 

 

{9½ months}

500th

January 8, 2004

 

 

 

{8 months}

1,000th

September 6, 2004

 

 

 

{6 months}

1,500th

March 2, 2005

 

 

 

{5¾ months}

2,000th

October 23, 2005

 

 

 

{~8 months?}

2,500th

June ???

 

Afghanistan, Iraq, and the whole “global war on terror” (a.k.a. “the long war”), like Vietnam, are for the public becoming increasingly onerous. While the actual number of fatalities is low compared to other major wars that have lasted more than three years, the manipulations of the shock of September 11, 2001 have explicitly accentuated public fear of the future to abridge constitutional rights and to foster a revengeful paranoia that claims to be the justification for launching preventive wars.

That the administration and many in Congress have been so cavalier with the truth in no way denigrates the sacrifices made by these men and women (and Iraqi men and women) who have been the victims of this war. In this context it becomes most fitting this Memorial Day to pause—not just for the “traditional” twenty or thirty seconds of silence before the first pitch is thrown or the first hot dog is consumed—to remember, to contemplate, those who have fallen, and to renew our dedication, our conviction, and our commitment to the idea that “War is not the Answer.”


Dan Smith is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus, a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

© 2006 Foreign Policy in Focus

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