Earning It, For Our Brothers In Arms
Today is May 30 and for over a century this was Memorial Day. Originally called Decoration Day, May 30 was set aside in 1868 so we as a nation could remember the dead of the Civil War. For decades we did it concretely, by voluntarily decorating their graves with the flowers of each new Spring.
But in 1971, Memorial Day become both a legal holiday and the three-day weekend that now denotes, more than anything else, the cultural start of Summer. We celebrate it with barbecues and double-headers. Maybe we take in a parade, but few of us spend any part of it in a cemetery, and a scant few at the grave of someone we actually knew who died in battle.
This dissonance between what we say we celebrate and what we actually celebrate has caused no shortage of angst over the years. Some have wrung their hands over whether it is disrespectful to celebrate Memorial Day with burgers and beer. https://thefederalist.com/2015/05/25/is-it-disrespectful-to-celebrate-memorial-day. Others, those who actually fought and know some who died in battle, suffer a pain made more acute by our crasser Memorial Day affectations. https://www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/commentary/ct-veteran-thoughts-on-memorial-day-20150523-story.html .
Those concerns are legitimate, but the devolution of Memorial Day from a day to commune with our Fallen to just another odd vacation day was inevitable. Over the decades, military casualties have become more and more remote from the public consciousness. A look at the numbers tells why.
The Civil War dead numbered 620,000. That figure is often compared to the size of a city like Baltimore in an effort to render it meaningful, but that doesn't really bring it home. Think of it instead from the perspective of the dead. How many friends and acquaintances would have mourned the Civil War dead as personal losses?
Researchers have concluded that, because there are only so many hours in a day, we can manage only about 150 close friends. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-many-people-can-you-remember/. More broadly, the average person knows about 600 people personally, which includes less intimate but still familiar acquaintances. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/19/science/the-average-american-knows-how-many-people.html.
By those measures, the Civil War dead had about 93 million close friends, and 372 million familiar acquaintances. And that would have been impossible, because the entire population of the country in 1860 was only 32 million. But it means this: while the Civil War dead accounted for "only" 2% of the entire population, undoubtedly everyone in the country knew enough of them well enough to mourn them as their very own. Back then, Decoration Day was personal.
But over time, this personal link between the living and the dead stretched thinner and thinner. World War II cost us 417,000 lives. That implies that 62 million -- roughly half the population -- had a close friend or relative die in combat, and everyone knew someone who did. That was still substantial. However, by the time of Vietnam, a mere 4% of the population had a friend or relative die in Vietnam, and even their more distant acquaintances accounted for no more than 17% of the population. Vietnam was the defining war of my generation, and popular opposition ended it, but I only knew one who died there despite growing up in a military town.
Today, the war dead are so remote as to be virtually invisible. In all of our eighteen years in Iraq and Afghanistan, fewer than 5,000 soldiers have died. https://dod.defense.gov/News/Casualty-Status/.That is but 0.002% of the current population. Their close friends and relatives account for only a quarter of one percent of the population and their broader acquaintances only 1%. I'm ashamed to say it, but I'm one of the 99% who doesn't know anyone who died in the Middle East; I'm not even sure I know anyone who's served there.
Given those arithmetic realities, we shouldn't wonder that Memorial Day has become an abstraction. All our wars -- including the one we are still fighting -- are in the same category as the War of the Roses and the Peloponnesian War for all their impact on our daily lives. It won't get better. It shouldn't get better. The only way to make war casualties more personal to us is for many -- many, many -- more of our friends and neighbors to be butchered in combat. We shouldn't want that.
But it leaves us in a quandary. How do we honor the Fallen without succumbing to empty Memorial Day rituals of barbecues and white sales?
War is hell, as General William Tecumseh Sherman said. It is chaos and destruction that we who have never faced it cannot imagine. A combat veteran who became a movie producer once said that the true nature of combat could not be conveyed to a movie audience without mounting machine guns behind the screen and randomly firing on them. They say Steven Spielberg came the closest with Saving Private Ryan.
Private Ryan is war in miniature. Tom Hanks' Captain Miller lands on D-Day and then leads a squad into occupied territory to rescue Private Ryan. Ryan was chosen to be removed from the fighting as the sole survivor of his family after all his brothers had been killed. As we follow the mission, we are exposed to the myriad horrors of war. The terror, the gore, the triumphs, the defeats, the courage, the cowardice, the desperation, the false hopes, the skill, the incompetence, the stupidity, the confusion, the lucky breaks and the bad ones -- are all served up one upon the other. At the end of it, every question about war is addressed except the most important: What was the point of it all? And so, Captain Miller, as he lay dying, says to Private Ryan, "Earn this."
Earn what, actually? The movie's title has two meanings. The surface meaning simply describes the mission -- to find and save the life of Private Ryan. But "private" has another meaning besides the military rank. Private Ryan is also James Ryan, the private person, with a private life and private dreams and aspirations, no longer the public man who is a soldier. At the end of the film, an aged James Ryan, standing at Captain Miller's grave, remembers his savior's words, and asks his wife in trembling voice to tell him he's been a good man -- that he has in fact earned his private life. In the background, a gaggle of children and grandchildren give us one answer, not necessarily the only one.
May 30 was originally chosen as Decoration Day because it was supposedly the only day in the Spring calendar that wasn't already commemorating a major Civil War battle. That war was so thick with battles one can well question the premise. Still, General John Logan chose to honor the Fallen on the one day when, at least by his lights, the guns fell silent. He chose a solitary day of peace, a day when no one died in combat, the only kind of day on which a private life can thrive, and I think he chose well. We lost something sacred when we made Memorial Day a mere seasonal three-day weekend.
I too am conflicted about Memorial Day. We should honor our war dead, but I know of no combatant's grave by which to mourn, and to spread flowers and flags randomly across a field of unknown soldiers seems both an abstract ritual and too lazy a way out. Better, I think, is to resolve that those dead did not die in vain by asking of our private lives, as James Ryan asked late in his, whether we've earned them. And by promising to keep earning them, because we never fully do.-
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