America’s lengthy roster of war dead began with 25,000 lost establishing our nation in the Revolutionary War, the first believed to be Crispus Attucks in the Boston Massacre of 1770. That was followed by 20,000 in the War of 1812 and 13,000 in the Mexican War in the 19th century.
Another 600,000-plus fell on both sides in the Civil War, the nation’s bloodiest conflict by far, followed by 2,000 in the Spanish-American War to close the century.
Then in a 20th century of war with little pause, 116,000 Americans died in the trenches of World War I, the war that did not end all wars, followed by another 400,000 in Europe and the Pacific in World War II. In Asia, Korea claimed 36,000 lives and Vietnam took 58,000. Then it was off to the Middle East, where nearly 7,000 fell in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan over two decades.
Thankfully, the carnage has slowed as combat operations have mostly ended, for now. But based on history and an increasingly unstable world, it’s not likely that the last American has fallen in warfare, even if we wish it so.
That leaves some 1.3 million Americans, mostly young men and some women, whose lives were cut short as they defended the nation’s interests and the cause of freedom. They left behind grieving parents and siblings, widows and widowers, and children whose recollections often were limited to hazy memories and photographs. Some might have accomplished amazing things in their civilian lives, but that’s a mark no one will ever see.
We honor them each Memorial Day, not just for what they did, which was remarkable, but for who they were and what they might have been. No sacrifice is greater than surrendering one’s future so others may have one.
They all had something else in common we should remember: None of them chose to be a fallen hero. Given their druthers, each would have dodged that fatal bullet, bomb, bayonet or other deadly blow and lived to tell the tale. Many in the chaos of combat bravely gave themselves to save others, knowing they wouldn’t make it out alive, yet surely they would have chosen a safer strategy if one were available. Each would have preferred to finish their task and return home in one piece, as so many of their fellow soldiers did, to resume their lives.
They were not martyrs choosing to die for a cause, however noble. As eloquently stated by Gen. George Patton, “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”
These were regular folks, average Americans like the rest of us who just happened to be caught up in a certain place and time. Most were no more or less exceptional than anyone else, their courage spiked only by circumstances and necessity, and perhaps a convenient rush of adrenalin.
Many were not killed while engaged in full combat or Sgt. York-like daring deeds amid a hail of fire but as mere by-standers, taken by a stray shot or piece of shrapnel. Some fell in battle before they could get off a shot. And most likely would admit they were scared out of their minds. It’s a reminder that true courage isn’t the absence of fear but the ability to conquer fear and rise above it.
Yet it doesn’t matter at all how they died, but that they did. Those who wore the uniform, entered the arena and made the effort all earned the right to be honored each Memorial Day and for all time. They all made the same sacrifice and served the greater good. Those who didn’t come home and those who did marched side by side, no different in any way but their fates.
We celebrate them all as heroes. The flag we place on gravesites, wave at parades and salute with moist eyes at every opportunity bears their blood and sacrifice, all 1.3 million lost and then some, those they left behind and who mourn them still.
From its beginning, this nation has taken pride in the dignity and character of the common citizen, unlike societies built around royalty and noblemen. Our heroes don’t have to be shining knights in armor riding a golden steed into battle, a fanciful image more of Hollywood than true warfare. America’s real heroes have always been the regular troops, the Willies and Joes, the GI Janes, the grunts, foot soldiers, sailors, pilots and Marines, grousing about lousy chow, digging trenches in the rain, swabbing the decks, toting homemade hooch in their canteens and thumbing their nose at regulations and stuffy officers.
They didn’t seek glory, just a chance to win the war and save their hides. They weren’t supermen but regular men put into horrific situations and asked to do the impossible. So they strapped on their helmets, shouldered their rifles, slogged into battle and did their duty as best as they could, ordinary people making extraordinary sacrifices.
This is why they all deserve our respect, on the last Monday in May, the 11th of every November, the Fourth of July and every day in-between. We salute their service and can never thank them enough.