It’s said that “freedom isn’t free,” but on Memorial Day weekend, it often feels like it. Memorial Day in America is a day of solemn commemoration entangled with the banalities of a three-day party, the summer-season opener. Since 1865, when former slaves in South Carolina visited Union cemeteries to honor the sacrifice the men in blue made to free them, Americas have observed this annual remembrance of the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in our armed forces. But today, the occasion is often marked with barbecues, pool parties and bargain shopping.
For more than a century, from the late 1860s until 1971, Memorial Day was observed on May 30. Then, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act (passed in 1968) fixed this and three other observances (Washington’s birthday, Columbus Day and Veterans’ Day) to Mondays, thus guaranteeing a three-day weekend for federal employees and all other workers who follow the federal government’s operating schedule. (Veterans’ Day was later fixed to its original date of November 11; it is no longer a federal holiday).
Perhaps this is when the day began to be associated with summer fun in addition to remembrance, with the former taking a larger share of the attention lately. But it is also a function of how disconnected the civilian world is becoming from the military. It has been a very long time since America’s armed forces have been engaged in a conflict that drew the larger part of the society into it—whether as members of the various services or as civilians enlisted to provide for the war effort in labor or other service. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. writes:
Our major wars – particularly the Civil War, which gave rise to Memorial Day, and World War II – were in some sense mass democratic experiences. They touched the entire country. The same cannot be said of our more recent conflicts.
The gulf (in terms of ratio of those who serve, or have served, to those who haven’t) between the military and civilian populations has never been wider than it is today. Our all-volunteer military numbers about 2.9 million active and reserve personnel in a nation where over 140 million people are of service age. That’s about 2% of the eligible population (and less than 0.5% of the total population) actively engaged in the military. During World War II, over half of eligible men served in the military, and most of the rest of civilian industry was devoted to providing for the war effort. Moreover, it’s estimated that about 10.1% of the total civilian adult population are veterans,* from 109 year old Frank Buckles—a World War I soldier—to veterans of the current campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the percentage of modern-era veterans relative to the total population is tiny.
Memorial Day asks all Americans to pay special attention to the men and women who have died in the service of our nation. We are called to reflect on and respect the ultimate sacrifice these soldiers, sailors, flyers and marines have made for the country, from the present day and stretching back to the times of Valley Forge. Since the American Revolution to the present, about 1.2 million men and women have died in service to the nation. Nearly half of these casualties occurred during the Civil War (on both sides), and over 400,000 from World War II alone. Then, Word War I (~116,000); Vietnam (~58,000); and the Korean War (~36,000) account for most of the rest. Over 4,000 have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But what sacrifice do we—meaning the society as a whole that benefits from the service of others—make? What sacrifice are we called to make? Unless you have a loved one or an ancestor among the 1.2 million who have made the ultimate sacrifice—or is in a position that risks doing so—chances are that you spend Memorial Day taking advantage of the neighborhood pool that just opened, or shopping the department store for bargains, or enjoying a barbecue.
Greg Parker, a Navy commander and Afghan war veteran, tells of being disoriented when, upon returning from a deployment, he received a 10% discount and a tepid “thank you for your service” from a Home Depot clerk who noticed his military I.D. Parker goes on to juxtapose his experience with the news in the nation he was fighting for:
It’s just that after enduring significant time apart from my family and fighting in a messy war with no clear protagonists, I expect a little more civic burden-sharing. While my squadron and I had been busy battling the Taliban and Al Qaeda, after all, Wall Street apparently had been on a drunken bender of sub-prime loans and mortgage derivatives that nearly catapulted the nation into a second Great Depression. Meanwhile, the bills for the war—not insignificant by any measure—were simply being charged to our children. Where was the shared sacrifice? Was the nation’s role in the war only to give me a 10 percent discount at Home Depot—and an obligatory pat on the head?
When Memorial Day is over, and summer has “officially” begun, most of us without these connections to the military will resume daily routines that are becoming largely devoid of any notion that there are men and women on the front lines of danger on our behalf, at least until Veterans’ Day. The two major wars—Iraq and Afghanistan—are waged off budget, so that there is no trade-off between these and other desirable social programs. Media budgets are so tight that most networks and newspapers have drastically cut their presences in foreign theaters of operation, so we only hear about the wars when there is a great loss of life. Many Americans commendably volunteer their time to visit wounded veterans in military hospitals or organize care package drives, but there is no sense of national burden-sharing with our men and women in uniform. It costs most of us very little compared to the infinite cost borne by the very few.
* The original text wrote that the number of veterans was 12% of 330 million total U.S. population. The more precise figures, from the U.S. Census Bureau for 2008, are that the 18 and over U.S. population is 230,118,000, and the number of veterans in 2008 is 23.2 million, or 10.1 %. The author regrets the error.