Memorial Day is the day set aside to remember those lost
their lives as part of the American military. In this generation, we have become
acquainted with the tragic losses in the War On Terror. Almost two decades
after the September 11 attacks, most Americans know someone who has served in
Iraq or Afghanistan. These conflicts have cost the lives of an estimated
7,000 American soldiers. Countless others have been maimed or suffer the
emotional effects of PTSD.
Yet, as costly as the War On Terror has been, other wars have
been even more bloody and have had an even greater impact on American society. In
Vietnam, a war which lasted longer than the War On Terror, the Veterans
Administration puts the total death toll at 58,220 American soldiers. The death
toll for the Korean conflict, a war which technically is still ongoing, was 36,574.
More than 400,000 American servicemen died in World War II and in World War I,
a conflict in which America only fought for two years, more than 115,000 US
soldiers died. In the Civil War (more appropriately called the War Between the
States), a total of almost half a million Americans were killed.
In addition to taking the miraculously low casualty rates of
the War On Terror for granted, we also take for granted that the US military
today, as the best in the world, will come out on top despite strategic missteps
by leaders in Washington. Our technology, from drones and smart bombs to
protective body armor, gives American soldiers an important advantage over our
foes. It wasn’t always that way.
Today, we mainly remember the victories from American history.
We often hear the roll call of names where the US was victorious, often at great
cost: Saratoga, Yorktown, Gettysburg, Midway, Normandy, Iwo Jima, Inchon, Khe
Sanh, Tora Bora, Baghdad.
No less important are the disasters that the American
military has suffered throughout our history. The American Republic almost
ended many times before the British surrendered at Yorktown and then again a
few years later when the redcoats burned Washington, D.C. during the War of
1812. The Confederacy came within a whisker of tearing the Union apart not long
after that as the great Generals Lee and Jackson routed the Union army time and
Pearl Harbor is remembered as the greatest military catastrophe
of American history, but it is far from the only disaster to befall the US
military. The attack on Hawaii was only the tip of the iceberg as the Japanese
ravaged American and British outposts in the Pacific. The fall of Guam, Wake
Island, and the Philippine Islands is largely forgotten today as is the Bataan
death march in which Japanese captors mercilessly marched American and Filipino
POWs into captivity with thousands dying along the way.
A few years ago I read Rick Atkinson’s great Liberation Trilogy
that covers the American campaigns against the Nazis and was surprised to
discover the extent of the military disasters suffered by the United States on
the road to Berlin. The Battle of Kasserine Pass was a disaster in which the US
Army lost 300 dead, as well as 3,000 missing and another 3,000 wounded. More
than 1,300 Americans were killed or wounded in a failed attempt to cross Italy’s
Rapido River in January 1944. Sometimes the victories were worse than the
defeats. When the US Army performed an amphibious landing at Anzio in Italy, the
fighting eventually cost 7,000 killed and 36,000 wounded or missing over a five-month
There are also thousands of Americans who died in small,
unknown conflicts that are largely forgotten by history. Max Boot’s “The Savage
Wars of Peace” is the definitive history of these undeclared wars that have
been waged going back to the earliest days of our nation. From the shores of
Tripoli in Jefferson’s day to the Moro Rebellion in the Philippines and the 20th century interventions in Latin America, American soldiers have gone where their
Uncle Sam sent them and many never returned.
A few years ago, a friend in my hometown noticed a Memorial
Day marker on the town square that honored Private DeWitt Rucker, who gave his
life in what was designated as the “MPE” with no explanation. After some online
detective work, we found that Pvt. Rucker was a Buffalo Soldier, a black cavalryman,
who accompanied Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing on his attempt to capture the
Mexican bandit Pancho Villa in 1916, the Mexico Punitive Expedition. In a story
detailed on my blog, we learned that Rucker died in the Battle of Carrizal,
Mexico on June 21, 1916. This tragic encounter with Mexican cavalry is all but
forgotten, along with Pvt. Rucker and the other 11 Americans and 30 Mexicans
killed that day.
Our country and the world as we know it today was forged in the blood of American patriots. Without their sacrifice, the world would be a very different place today. Even the soldiers who gave their lives military defeats or seemingly pointless battles helped to shape the world as we know it. Often, failed battles bought time for other forces to organize or taught lessons that ultimately led to victory. Without the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, today’s world would be dominated by Russia and China, if not Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
America’s wars could never have been won without the sacrifices
of our veterans, but, as you read the military histories and memoirs of the
people involved, it becomes apparent that although they may have enlisted for
patriotic reasons or been conscripted by the draft, once in combat, soldiers often
reported fighting for a different reason. Once on the line, soldiers often find
themselves fighting for their buddies, the other men in their unit. Sometimes,
the fear of letting down their buddies was worse than the fear of death.
This may be what leads soldiers to lay down their own lives.
It is not only for love of country but for the guy in the foxhole next to them,
for the airman sitting beside them in the cockpit, for the crewmates on their
ship. The bond between people have faced combat and death together is strong.
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life
for one’s friends.”