Veterans Day ‘21 has passed, but war memorials in this region and around the country tell important stories all year long. Actually they make you wonder and want more. At the least, they prod and induce you to value the life you presently live, and all you so frequently take for granted. Just a few moments contemplating this overly large group of young departed truly diminishes the impact of one’s own often trivial concerns.
Starting at such memorials with World War I, I have to wonder about the many impelled during the late stages of that horrendous conflict to join the fight, primarily in France. And why so many died even a month or two before the Nov. 11 armistice. One reason of course was generalship that had already needlessly killed off millions of French, British or German soldiers in grim trenches.
Then at these memorials comes by far the largest contingent of American war dead in the 20th century, surprisingly filling up marble or granite panels in even small towns, just waves of the young who gave it all in “the good war,” both in Europe and the Pacific. Into often ghastly circumstances they went, too often paying the worst of prices (while swing bands played sweetly back home).
We should certainly thank them all, no matter their backgrounds, for all they endured, and against super-armed, ruthless foes. Nothing but a great national sacrifice would have sufficed against enemies like the Nazis and Japanese, each with large conquered empires to buoy expansionist ambitions.
This was the war that brought Americans together, but as these lovely memorials show, at a massive human cost. So many fine and promising lives cut short (or sustaining wounds and life-long trauma).
And then Korea… Not so universally attended, but names on the panels there, too, are very moving, indeed. One thinks of far too many giving more than their share when South Korea was rapidly overrun in 1950, then up into the wintry north against fierce Chinese divisions in their hundreds of thousands, and at great odds, and with true grit, prevailing through to a hard-won armistice (July ‘53).
Yes, too many Americans (well over 30,000) died in this war, but they and survivors did grant South Korea a chance to become an astonishing democratic-capitalist success! (For openers think of thriving concerns there like Samsung.)
And then on these memorials comes sad, supremely polarizing Vietnam. Universally supported? Not by a long shot, and certainly far less than the Korean conflict, getting to a point in the late ‘60s where many soldiers returned from terrifying battle conditions in ‘Nam to jeering, cursing, and the like. A dark, sorry chapter, indeed, and yet, there are all those names from town after town, ones who also gave up promising young lives over there, leaving holes in familial hearts and much bitterness, too.
Room still for Iraq and Afghanistan to be filled out? Some will surely be made most everywhere. Because there again, much nobility was seen, with fine, protective young Americans (in the aftermath of 9/11) leaving their best in very difficult circumstances. Often in hand to hand combat, house by house, in searing heat, and never fully sure who was friend, “demi-friend” or foe. Not to mention those ghastly IEDs that ripped off legs and so senselessly took away too many of these young lives as well.
And there, too, generalship, and political flip-flops back home, and comfy pundits holding forth, and public opinion problems, and Pentagon foot-dragging, all played roles in creating too many of these American losses. Those soldiers were doing a major job abroad, while one administration countered and sometimes cancelled out the last, and nothing was sure or remotely unanimous stateside. Nothing there one could count on in any long-term way. These stories we know well, not least, from the recent, tragic wind-up in Afghanistan, but not always those of the soldiers themselves…
So, what lessons come from all those names? Far more of them than sketched in paltry fashion at the outset of this piece, so thin and cursory, given what all those gallant humans experienced. And which we all need to heed on many more days than just Nov. 11 (or Memorial Day) in this still parlous 21st century of ours.
B.B. Singer has taught at several area colleges including Niagara University.