Memorial Day

A gray morning. I open the New York Times site and see a photo of endless white crosses on a grassy slope. It makes me wonder; if we could add up every life lost in every war and action and evacuation and operation, how many would there be? Thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Millions?

Curious, I turn to Google, which shows me copies of every document officially declaring war. There are eleven. Great Britain in 1812, Spain and Mexico in 1846, Austria-Hungary and Germany in 1917 (WWI), and of course WWII, when we declared war on Japan, Germany, and Italy in December 1941 and Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary in June 1942.

But then something happened. Declared war became a thing of the past — a strange deviation for a country so in love with its military. Now we just have actions, or operations, or incursions, or sometimes evacuations.

I turned to Wikipedia and found a list of every action in which the U.S. participated (some of those listed included actions for humanitarian purposes). Of course anyone of my generation immediately thinks of Vietnam, nine years of misery and a sundering of our unity. In reality it was longer than that, there were military advisers in South Vietnam as early as 1959. But before Vietnam there was Korea 1950–1953, and through the 50s the U.S. involved its military just eight times in sites around the world.

In the 1960s the count rises to ten: two Cuban actions, an expeditionary force landing in Thailand, planes to Congo, advisers to Laos; Dominican Republic, Laos again, Cambodia, a few more.

The slow rise continues into the 1970s, when there are 11; mostly continuing actions in Vietnam, Cambodia, Korea. But in the 1980s the number explodes to 29 and includes such names as “operation Earnest Will, operation Praying Mantas, and operation Prime Chance. A few of these last more than a year. These names make me think the military — or someone — is having too much fun.

In the 1990s it grows again to 32, again with several multi-year actions. From 2000 to 2009 it drops to 20, including the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, and the war on terror — all of which continue to this day. (Note that though we call them wars, Congress, the only body with responsibility for declaring war, didn’t.)

The list from 2010 to 2017 shows 22 actions, but by now I am too depressed to go on. And I’ve not touched the Civil War, the slave rebellions, the battles against Native Americans.

So the answer to my question, “how many” is an obvious “far, far too many.” And looking at this long list one has to ask, how many died for a useless cause, a mistake, a regretted decision? And how many of these events could have been avoided with a little less testosterone and a lot more talk?

There will always be reasons to fight. But I hope that in the not too distant future we’ll avoid unnecessary deaths, and instead assume humanity’s capacity to solve problems without resorting to weapons. We will have to exchange our love of guns and glory for devotion to common sense and creative thinking. We can do that. And to honor all those millions who have died for us, we must.