Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Counting the cost

In late 1943, as the tide of battle in World War II was beginning to turn decisively in favor of the Allied Powers, the Big Three leaders of the Allies – Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin – met at Tehran to plan strategies for winning the war. Stalin argued vociferously for a second front in Europe to relieve pressure on his troops, who were at the time standing largely alone against the Nazis in the East.

According to David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman, when Churchill argued that a premature opening of a second front would cause an unjustified loss of tens of thousands of Allied soldiers. Stalin replied, “When one man dies it is a tragedy, when thousands die it’s statistics”

Two years later, at the Potsdam Conference of 1945, Stalin said directly to Truman, now the American President, “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”

This is the reality of war. We can understand and grieve over the loss of one soldier, or five, or perhaps even a score. But can we really wrap our minds around the deaths of a hundred, or a thousand, or a million? I don’t think we can. To paradoxically paraphrase the famous ‘forest for the trees’ metaphor, we lose sight of the beauty and sanctity of individual life against the backdrop of a veritable forest of wartime death.

Still, we find that the big numbers are no less important. It’s the big numbers that we go to war over. We tolerate the occasional combat loss of one or a dozen or a score of soldiers (The bombing of the USS Cole, with 17 sailors killed, comes to mind), but larger numbers seem to be a tipping point. In WWI, the number was 114 when the Lusitania was sunk. In 1941, the number was 2,896 at Pearl Harbor. In 2001, the number was 2,977.

Sergeant First Class Kristoffer Domeij was killed in Action in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, Oct. 25, 2011, on his 14th combat deployment. He left behind a wife and two daughters.
The big numbers are important. As a nation, there comes a point when we must fight for our survival. This means war, and war means many, many thousands of deaths. It’s important that we recognize and memorialize these numbers, hard as they may be to put into a personally meaningful context. We do this, not because we can actually grasp the enormity of the cost, but because we recognize that every single life lost was precious and irreplaceable, and represented, to the dead soldier, every single thing they had. Those soldiers died so that we may live to enjoy the fruits of our Liberty.

Monday is Memorial Day. Though congress made it a three-day weekend in 1971, Memorial Day is still formally a day to remember those who fell in the service of our country, and specifically those who fell during time of war.

Since our country began it’s first war in 1775, one million, three-hundred-six thousand and twenty-five American soldiers – men and women – husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, have fallen in the service of our country during wartime. In the Revolutionary War, 25,000. In the War of 1812, 20,000. In the Civil War, 625,000. In WWI, 116,516. In World War II, 405,399. In the Korean War, 36,516. In Vietnam, 58,209. In the Global War on Terror, 6,377. In all other military combat action, from the Northwest Indian war through the Mexican War through the Philippine War through Desert Storm and through the Yugoslavian Air Campaign, a further 13,008 American soldiers have fallen. As I write this, the casualty count continues to rise in Afghanistan.

So those are the big numbers. To borrow again from the famous metaphor, they represent a big, tragic, hauntingly beautiful forest of sacrifice. But what of the individual trees?

Even in the depths of our greatest wars, the Civil War and World War II, fewer than 10 percent of the population took up service and donned the uniform. Of those, only about one in one-hundred faced real combat. Today, as we fight the Global War On Terror, fewer than one percent of our population serves in the military.

I point this out because most of you – perhaps very nearly all of you – have never served in combat, or know intimately friends or family members who have done so. Fewer still have suffered the combat death of a comrade, close friend, or loved one. That very fact lends a powerfully different perspective to presently popular phrase “the 99 percent.”

Rather than urge you to “think of the fallen” on Monday, I’d like to offer you a challenge. Sometime this weekend, visit your local cemetery and look for the grave of a veteran who fell in combat. It’ll take a bit of walking, but you can do it. Most veterans graves will be marked this weekend anyway; simply find one whose year of death coincides with wartime. Do the math and figure out his or her age at death. Then do a little imagining. What could that person have done with a full life? Would they have married, started a family? Would they have taken up a trade, or started a business? In the fullness of time, would they have walked out across the cool, green, springtime lawn of a cemetery, paused at a grave, and wondered what might have been?

So take up my challenge, or not, as you see fit. I’ll never know. That’s not the point anyway.

There’s one thing more you can do, but you already know what it is.

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