We have plenty of veterans in this country — about 23 million actually, or 7 percent of the population, which is something to think about this Memorial Day weekend.
And we have plenty of veterans’ organizations, too — Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, AMVETS, Veterans for Peace, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the American Legion.
I think it’s because we have a lot of wars. I used to think war was a rare occurrence, but it’s not. I was born during World War II, and before I was old enough to grasp that elementary fact along came the Korean War. Then just 10 or 12 years later, the Vietnam War (which for me was “the war”), then the Gulf War, then the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. One right after another, with no more than 20 years in between. And that’s not to mention minor set-to’s in places like the Dominican Republic, Panama, Grenada and Somalia, not grand enough to warrant the label but enough to keep our muscles flexed, so to speak.
Thinking back on it, I wonder if the comedian George Carlin was right when he said, “We like war … we’re a warlike people.” Could that be? Or were all those wars imposed on us and entered into reluctantly?
I’m not qualified to answer, but it does seem a very busy record for a people who were not predisposed.
I look up the statistics and find that 848,000 American military people have died in combat in our history, and the number becomes 1.3 million when you count soldiers who died from non-combat causes (accidents, disease, suicide).
The greatest carnage occurred in the Civil War, when some 625,000 soldiers died, North and South, the majority from non-combat causes. The greatest number of actual combat deaths occurred in World War II, when 291,557 American soldiers were killed.
That helps to put in perspective our losses in the so-called war on terror, which after a decade total just 6,280, combat and non-combat, in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
I think we have different standards today. I remember when 500 American soldiers a week were being killed in Vietnam, something that is already incomprehensible a generation later, just as World War II casualties were incomprehensible during Vietnam.
Suicide among American troops went up dramatically during the worst days of the Iraq War, from 2004 to 2008, but now have leveled off or gone down. During one two-year period, 255 active-duty soldiers killed themselves.
A study by the Army Public Health Command concluded drily, “An Army engaged in prolonged combat operations is a population under stress, and mental health conditions and suicide can be expected to increase under these circumstances,” which might be something else to think about as we honor, and perhaps even glorify, the war dead this weekend. Not all died in glory. Some died in the most private of misery, by their own hand.
For some of the living, the misery can continue. If you’re a veteran in that situation, back home with your nerves going haywire, or if you know such a veteran, the number to call is 800-273-8255, which is the Veterans Crisis Line.
It’s a morbid thought to introduce on a holiday weekend, but war is a morbid business. The flag-waving comes later, with the brass bands and the fine speeches.