It often annoys me to hear people on Memorial Day talk about veterans or the men and women currently serving in the armed forces. Why? Because it reveals that they don't understand what Memorial Day is all about. After all, we set aside Veterans Day on November 11 to honor veterans and we set aside Armed Forces Day on the last Saturday of May to honor those men and women currently serving (sadly, the latter holiday is often ignored altogether). Memorial Day, by contrast, is a day specifically set aside for those men and women who lost their lives in America's wars. Not the veterans who made it home or the people still in uniform, but those who, to use Lincoln's words, gave their last full measure of devotion.
The fact that it is so often confused with Veterans Day and Armed Forces Day is, I believe, a testament to our country's collective lack of appreciation for all of our fighting men and women, both those who came back and those who didn't. Can we not even be bothered to learn which people we are supposed to be honoring on which holiday?
Something like twenty-five thousand Americans died winning our independence in the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Fifteen thousand died in the War of 1812 (1812-1815) and around thirteen thousand died in the Mexican War (1846-1848). During the nightmare of the Civil War (1861-1865), more than six hundred thousand men died (perhaps quite a bit more, according to recent scholarship) on both the Union and Confederate sides. Entering the age of more exact figures, we can see that 2,446 Americans died in the Spanish-American War (1898) and 4,196 Americans died in the Filipino-American War (1898-1913). 116,516 Americans died in the First World War (1917-1918) and 405,399 Americans died in the Second World War (1941-1945). 36,516 Americans died in the Korean War (1950-53) and 58,209 Americans died in the Vietnam War (1955-1975). 2,229 Americans have died in the Afghanistan War (2001-present) and 4,488 Americans died in the Iraq War (2003-2011).
These are just the numbers from the biggest and most well-known conflicts of American history. Yet there have been literally dozens of smaller conflicts over the 239 years since our country's founding which have faded from the collective memory and whose details are now generally known only to specialist scholars. 401 American soldiers died in the Seminole Wars and hundreds more in the various other Indian wars waged by the United States government. 131 Americans died suppressing the Boxer Rebellion in China. 19 Americans died in the 1983 invasion of Grenada, 40 in the 1989 invasion of Panama, and 294 in the 1991 Gulf War with Iraq.
Two American sailors or marines (I can't discover which) died in 1832 during a punitive expedition against the Chiefdom of Kuala Batee on Sumatra in what is now Indonesia. They perished in hand-to-hand fighting that took place when Commodore John Downes of the United States Navy, acting under orders from President Andrew Jackson, launched an attack on Kuala Batee as a reprisal for the massacre of the crew of an American merchant ship a year earlier. Until I sat down to write this blog entry, I had had no idea that this event had ever taken place. Yet why should these the two Americans be remembered any less than any two soldiers, sailors, airmen, or marines who have given their lives in any other conflict, from 1775 right down to the present day? Hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans died in countless now-forgotten small engagements over the course of our country's history.
Nor must we ever forget those whose deaths could never be confirmed. According to the Defense POW/MIA Account Agency, over 83,000 American service personnel are still officially unaccounted for. These men and women must bear the tragic label of "missing in action". We need to remember and honor them, too.
The idea of "American exceptionalism" has become something of a hot potato in the political rhetoric of our day, but the truth is America is a very exceptional country and has a special place in the history of the world. We're not a nation in any traditional sense, as we are not defined by any specific ethnic or linguistic or religious identity. We are a people united by a common constitution and common political ideals of representative democracy and individual liberty. There's no other country in the history of the world like the United States of America and we should rightfully feel proud of it.
However, there never would have been a United States of America had it not been for the hundreds of thousands of men and women who gave their lives in the struggles to secure and defend American liberty. Not all the wars were wise and, truth be told, not all the wars were just. That's worth remembering, but it does not change the fact that our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines have fought and died for love of country. They have given their lives at places as far removed in time and distance as Saratoga, Lundy's Lane, Churubusco, Gettysburg, Little Big Horn, San Juan Hill, Belleau Wood, Bastogne, Iwo Jima, Heartbreak Ridge, Ia Drang, Kandahar, Fallujah, and such insignificant places as the tiny hamlet of Kuala Batee on the Sumatran coast.
Don't forget them.