According to statistics shared by PBS, via data they collected from the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs, the total number of Americans killed in all U.S wars is more than 1.1 million.
That is a statistic that should cause all of us to feel a pounding in our chests — not only due to the fact that 1.1 million is an awfully large number, but also because it is 1.1 million individuals. That’s more than one million human beings mourned by parents, spouses, children, friends and neighbors, each with his or her own story, cut short by the ravages and horrors of war.
War stinks. Republican or Democrat, man or woman, old or young, black or white, Christian or non-Christian — war does not discriminate in its cravings for more fresh blood. It simply continues to consume, its appetite seemingly never satisfied.
And, no, there is no “War to end all wars,” as author H.G. Wells once optimistically described World War I. The monster grows, because human beings have a tendency to be, well, human being-ish. As a species, we thirst for dominance, or we react to the thirst of others.
Wars have been waged over real estate, religion and quests for natural resources. We’ve all heard about the Trojan War being fought over Helen of Troy, the Pig War kicked off because of a pig that was slaughtered for rooting through a potato patch, and Greece and Bulgaria squabbled in 1925 because a Greek soldier was allegedly shot because he crossed into Bulgaria while chasing his runaway dog.
There have been any number of reasons that young people have picked up arms to fight with one another, and an equal amount of reasons they have been called upon to do just that. It happened during Biblical times, and it will happen until we wrap up our time as a species on this spinning ball of ours, making way for the nine-eyed, amphibious creatures who will someday take our place.
As the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana espoused in 1922, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
Let’s get back to that 1.1 million figure again. Can you, as an individual, think of one of those people who gave their lives in war? Five people? Ten? More than 10? Sadly, most of us can. But let’s keep our focus on just one right now.
Do we remember that person’s face when a certain song comes on the radio, or when we think back to a fun day at school or at the beach? Do we run into his or her parents, and walk away feeling heartbroken over their loss? Do we ache inside over that person’s loss, while clinging to the solace that he or she paid the ultimate price in defense of everything we’ve known and loved?
Albert Camus wrote in “The Stranger” that, “Since we’re all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter.”
I couldn’t disagree more. At the end, when each of our individual stories are complete, what do we want the pages in between the covers to say? How many pages do we want in our stories? How should the story be passed along to those we left behind, and the generations who follow them into the future?
Those 1.1 million Americans who gave their lives while serving our nation are to be honored and remembered for their deeds. Each and every one of them. The “when” and “how” matters, and it should matter.
Look, this weekend is a big deal around our community. It is the unofficial starting point of the busy summer season that still makes our economic engine purr. Second-homeowners will be down to enjoy the holiday, renters will be coming in for their vacations and businesses will be opening their doors — providing us with goods and services, while employing people for the summer months.
It’s also a fun weekend. It’s the season. We barbecue. We drink adult beverages under the sun. We spend time with loved ones, and we embrace a summer that is hopefully prosperous and exciting. In a way, it’s a celebration of all the things we can do, because others have sacrificed so much to ensure that we can.
But it’s called Memorial Day for a reason, and that reason is to honor each and every life that was given to continue and advance our way of life.
As you are enjoying an amazing weekend of freedom, remember that one person in your life, or your family’s tree, who paid that ultimate price. Or remember two of them. Or three. Or 1.1 million.
Tip a glass, say a prayer or ask your friends and family to put down the Frisbees for a minute to just close eyes, hold hands and offer a little silent thanks.
We can never bring back those we have lost, but we can continue to breathe life into their stories by keeping them in our hearts.