Why did they die?
Did so many young Americans have to surrender their futures in two centuries-plus of warfare? Was it necessary for them to suffer, many in the most horrible, violent manner imaginable? All had so much more to give and left so much behind.
“Freedom isn’t free,” it is said, but it’s more than just that. Freedom is brutally expensive.
Some 1 million Americans have paid the ultimate price in a dozen wars, enough people to fill Sanford Stadium 10 times. For every life lost, those left behind saw their lives changed: Spouses were widowed, children left without a parent, parents without children, siblings, friends and neighbors all made poorer by their absence.
Was the cost worth it? Most would say yes, even if some grieving loved ones believe otherwise. Truth is, not all war deaths came as nobly as seen in the movies. Many were indeed senseless, as not all wars were fought for clear and worthwhile objectives, now seen through the back window of history. And not all fell in combat; tens of thousands died from disease, accidents, friendly-fire, self-inflicted wounds and plain stupidity.
But on Memorial Day, that doesn’t matter. Whether an American service member died exchanging fire with an enemy or when a jeep turned over, they all served, they all sacrificed and they all earned the right to be remembered as heroes.
Yet back to the original question: Was their sacrifice truly necessary? What did we gain from their effort? To measure this, we must imagine how the world would look had they not been lost defending freedom. Though some U.S. wars were but a footnote with limited casualties and impact, many have defined the course of world history.
Surely the revolutionary American colonies would have eventually split from England, as others did, but would the result have led to the same level of independence?
The Civil War changed the United States from a country loosely bound by an unholy compromise into a true nation with a common definition of liberty, even if it took another century to bring it to fruition. As author Shelby Foote stated, the conflict turned the United States from plural to singular, from an “are” to an “is.”
The Great War of the early 20th century turned a still-young nation into a world superpower. That might was brought to full bear in the second World War, the pivotal conflict of the ages in which the free world beat back oppression and bigotry at the stupendous price of 60 million lives.
Hall County lost nearly 100 service members in that war, many more returning home to share their experiences. We lost two high-profile war veterans in recent months: Pearl Harbor survivor Henry Thomas “Jeep” Woodliff, 101, and Cecil Boswell, 99, who fought on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Their kind will never come our way again, and yet they were just a sample of those who fought. Those who perished never walked in parades or received the glory their fellow soldiers gladly accepted on their behalf. Yet in both life and death, they marched together as colleagues.
The nation’s subsequent “police actions” in Korea and Vietnam divided the public and left historians wondering if the effort to contain communism was needed or effective. How the global map would look otherwise is uncertain, but it likely would be different than today’s.
In recent years, the theater shifted to the Middle East, in Iraq and Afghanistan, where fighting continues against shadowy foes who mimic the Nazis’ brutality.
And the casualties keep coming. Just last month, U.S. Army 1st Lt. Weston C. Lee, a 2014 graduate of the University of North Georgia’s Dahlonega campus, was killed in Iraq by an explosive device while on patrol outside Mosul opposing Islamic State forces. He recently joined the nation’s other fallen heroes in a burial ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
Though it’s hard to imagine a parallel future that never occurred, we can see what we have become as a measure of our armed services’ efforts and sacrifices. Some 240 years and a million souls later, we’re still free, even if some believe that freedom to be limited. But any checks on liberty are self-inflicted from within, often by our inability to heal the internal wounds of racism, intolerance and injustice. Despite that, no nation or outside force is able to impose its will over ours.
We often refer to this being a “divided” nation, and it can be, politically and culturally. But the right to express opposing viewpoints was defended by the million who marched into combat and never returned, all to keep foreign oppressors out of our family debates.
If you have attended a political rally wearing either a red ball cap or a pink hat with kitten ears, your right to speak freely without fear of government reprisal was not threatened by those wearing helmets but rather supported by them. Even in an imperfect system, we still choose our leaders, such as they are, and we’re free to toss them out. The guns, tanks and soldiers we pay for protect that right rather than take it away.
This vast, diverse nation remains a flawed experiment in democracy, its script constantly rewritten with unanticipated twists. The steady constant in a history of change is our military’s bravery keeping us in control of our own fate. Hitler didn’t get his way here, thanks to the 16 million who served and 300,000 who died to stop him. Neither did Bin Laden, nor the hooded thug of the week heading ISIS, nor every other despot who has set sights upon us.
Yes, America can be a chaotic mess at times, but it’s our mess and ours alone, and we have our heroes to thank for it. This Memorial Day, let’s honor their sacrifice by preserving what they fought and died for.
Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.