A few years back, my wife and I had a couple of younger friends over for dinner. It was the first time they’d been in our home and they requested a tour. On the upper level hallway of our four-level home, there’s an area we call the Wall of Fame. Pictures of various family members, graduations, weddings, that sort of thing. It’s a big wall and there are a lot of pictures.
Among them are old photos of my dad and my wife’s dad, in their WW2 uniforms. There’s a picture of my Aunt Virginia in her WW2 WAVES uniform. During the big war, Aunt Virginia – one of five sisters – said “we don’t have any men in our family to help win this war, so I’m going, and that’s all there is too it”. There’s a picture of my dad's brother, Uncle John, in his Army uniform. He was a spy during the WW2 era, although back then they just said “he’s attached to OSS”. That stood for “Office of Strategic Services”, which became the CIA. He wouldn’t tell us where he served, but he spoke Japanese, which might have been a clue.
Viewing the pictures, our young friends said “oh, so you come from a military family!” No, not really, we said. Back then, during the big war, just about every family in America had a member who served in the armed forces. We explained that it’s typical for us baby-boomers to have close family members who did their duty and came home from the big war.
For 407 thousand American families, there was a family member who did not come home from the war, a family member who lost their life. 60 million people died in WW2, which was about 3% of the population of our planet at that time.
The photo at the top of this post is from an unknown source; it made its way around the internet yesterday, Memorial Day. I imagine it to be a young woman who lost her husband in one of the wars we have going now. It’s an incredibly sad photo. She’s holding the folded flag presented to her by a military officer at the funeral, “with the thanks of a grateful nation” while she’s bent over the coffin in grief.
Here’s another photo that got a lot of exposure on the internet yesterday; a photo of a young mother grieving at the grave of her 19-year-old son who was killed in action in Iraq five years ago.
I grew up at a time when probably a third or more of the adult men in my small village had worn the uniform of their nation during the big war. Now, with the all-volunteer army, only a small fraction of one percent of our nation is serving in the military.
Younger people today are disconnected from the wars their national leaders have gotten us involved in. They may know somebody from their high school class who served in Afghanistan or Iraq; odds are strong they don’t know anyone who was killed in action in either of those nations. Since 2001, about 7 thousand of our soldiers and an equal number of civilian contractors have been killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So the odds are pretty small that anyone in America actually knew someone who was killed in action since a small band of Saudi Arabians flew airplanes into our buildings.
I think it’s that disconnect – being aware that many of our troops are dying in these seemingly endless wars, but not actually knowing any person who has died in action, or a family which has lost a member – that has allowed our leaders to continue these wars.
Vietnam was the war of my era, a war that claimed the lives of 58-thousand American troops. My kids have been given the “Viet Nam Death Tour” many, many times when they were younger. Every time we’d drive from our home in Madison up to visit my family in the Fox Valley, as we got close to my small hometown of Hortonville, I’d point out the home of one of my high school classmates who was killed in that war. There are four of them. Guys I went to school with who lost their lives in Vietnam.
And that’s not counting my grade school friend Tommy Armitage, who was drafted into the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War and gave his life to save four other Marines by throwing himself onto a Viet Cong hand grenade in February of 1969, while I was drinking beer and talking smart in college.
Having those direct connections to war deaths was one of the main reasons my generation rose up against the war machine and stopped it. We were losing a pointless war and too many of our friends were getting killed in it.
It’s also why I get my Irish up when I see so many posts on social media and hear so many TV folks talk about how Memorial Day is a day to honor “all our brave service men and women”. No, it’s not. That’s Veterans Day. Memorial Day is to honor the men and women who paid the ultimate price. They deserve a day of their own, and I’ll take any bet on whether those serving right now agree with me that their day is Veteran’s Day, and Memorial Day is to honor those who gave all.
God bless all those who gave their lives doing what our nation asked them to do; and thanks to those who volunteered to put on the uniform and go where our nation ordered them to go.
I think if today’s young people had the kind of personal connection to war that my generation and the generation before mine did, things would be different.Very different.