“… from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”
– Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address
At the World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C., is a wall spangled with 4,048 gold stars. It delivers a sobering reality check on the heavy price that war demands not just of military men and women, but of their families, their descendants and the country.
Each star on that wall represents the deaths of 100 American soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who were killed during that war. Do the math: The country suffered more than 400,000 American military deaths in World War II.
It’s difficult, today, to comprehend the level of suffering that horrendous body count inflicted on so many American families. Today, we are uncomfortable – and not inappropriately – at the deaths of a few of our troops stationed in hostile areas. What would we think if hundreds of thousands of our men and women were killed?
Certainly, World War II was a necessary war, and that makes a difference. After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and as the stakes in Europe become clear, and with strong leadership at home and in the field, Americans became steeled to the task. We paid the price.
But some paid more dearly.
Start with the 404,800 lives cut short in service of their country and of a suffering humanity. The sacrifice of so many young lives is mind-boggling on its own. But what of the lost potential? Which of them would have been inventors, business leaders, senators or presidents? Consider: What if Dwight Eisenhower, supreme allied commander in Europe in World War II and 34th president of the United States, had been killed in World War I. How would that have changed history?
And what of the families these men left behind – the wives, parents, sons and daughters? What price did those people pay for their loss? What of the children who could have influenced politics, business or culture but who were never conceived? Look again at those thousands of stars. It is beyond unlikely that none of them would have fathered notable offspring who might have written new music, honorably served on city councils or led their churches.
The aphorism is that a pebble dropped into a pond creates ripples that alter the water. These hundreds of thousands of deaths were more akin to boulders dropped into a pond, creating turbulent wakes that washed across generations.
That’s the price of our freedom and, of course, it wasn’t exclusive to World War II. Americans have borne the cost since shots were fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775. It was paid right here in Buffalo during the War of 1812, and across a blood-soaked landscape as the country took up arms against itself. It’s paid every time Americans go into battle, whether at Put-in-Bay or Belleau Wood, Bastogne or Inchon, Khe Sanh or Baghdad. The price is always high.
We haven’t always been good at distinguishing between unpopular wars and the troops that served during them. That was an especially destructive failure during and after the Vietnam War, but as we came to realize later, the price in blood and loss was the same.
The list of wars, battles and casualties is long indeed. Whatever the conflict, the sacrifice of the men and women who died for their country is deserving of the honor that we give them this Memorial Day. That is what is written in the stars at the World War II Memorial.