The Reason for Memorial Day

Note: This is adapted from a piece previously published on “Dixon’s Musings,” Osei’s largely defunct personal blog.

Though increasingly few remain alive who can recall it, a century has passed since World War I bloodied the fields of Europe.  Indeed, we are currently in the midst of the 100th anniversary of Battle of Verdun, a 10 month long engagement that injured and killed upwards of 1.1 million men.

In our cozy 21st Century lives, we can’t even begin to imagine the magnitude of such slaughter.  We cannot fathom a single battle lasting so long or costing so much.  Nor can we imagine the enormous toll of the war that followed, in which 300 million died, most of them Russian and Chinese civilians.

Indeed, the last major war to occur entirely on American soil, the Civil War, enacted a toll  beyond our comprehension.  The mere idea of suffering and loss (rightfully) turns our stomachs and makes us staunchly opposed to the idea of war.  Many today talk about putting a stop to “endless wars” in the Middle East, and not unjustifiably.

War is a complicated beast.  On the one hand, it is violence incarnate.  Lives are lost.  Communities turned to rubble.  Those who see it and live to tell about it have a part of them broken forever.  War is the great destroyer, the unleashing of our most primal instincts.  Even when combatants try their best, war touches lives both on and off the battlefield, warrior and civilian alike.

Despite all this, war remains a very necessary evil.

How different would the world be if the northern states hadn’t fought their southern brothers?  How would history have panned out if the Union hadn’t committed to victory on the fields of Gettysburg?  Or if they had not persevered through and beyond the bloody slogs of Antietam or Spotsylvania?

What if Germany had dominated all of Europe in the First World War?  What would have happened if the men of France and Britain broke in the face of the Kaiser’s troops?  How would we look upon the past if the United States hadn’t come to break the stalemate?  Some want to believe that World War I was unnecessary, an accident of careless posturing and diplomacy, but I’m not so sure that’s true anymore.

And what of World War II?  Where the preceding conflict was murky, this, the bloodiest and most devastating in all of human history, was not.  In this war, the Nazis of Germany and the imperialists of Japan were poised to seize control of the entire world.  Entire nations were reduced to rubble, crushed under the heels of states for whom power was the only goal.  Soldiers died by the millions repelling this juggernaut; everyone else by the tens of millions.  From the skies of Pearl Harbor and London, to the shores of Iwo Jima and Normandy, down to the streets of Stalingrad and Berlin, men struggled against the most aggressive evil to ever dawn on the planet.

It’s easy to say that we wish no war had ever been fought or should ever be fought again; merely reading of such things is enough to turn the stomach.  But the problem is that there are people in the world who don’t agree.  There are people in the world who crave power and loathe freedom; such people seek to conquer those who would stand in their way.

Such are the reasons we send young men and women off to war.  Not because we wish to see them maimed, to see them suffer, to see them die.  No, the reason they march off to the battlefield is that the price of freedom, the price of all that we have, is blood.

They go to war because they are the few who are willing to make that ultimate sacrifice.  They do what we are unable or unwilling to do ourselves.  For who among us can honestly and truly say we’d lay down our lives for one stranger, let alone millions?

And yet, that is precisely what millions of soldiers have done.  Hundreds, and often thousands of miles from home, soldiers perished to ensure that we can lead the lives we live today.  We can have our barbecues and parties, we can enjoy the comforts of home, blissful and ignorant of the sacrifices it took.

I wish just as much as anyone that there was no need for a Memorial Day at all, that no man had ever been slain in war.  And yet that is not our history.  That is not the world we live in.  That will never be the world we live in, for the greedy and the selfish and the power hungry will not leave us.  There will always be need for the warrior for there will always be a battle that needs to be fought.

To live as we do now demanded and continues to demand sacrifice.  Today we live in the shadow of the millions who gave everything for us.  Do not forget them.  Never forget them.

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