Published May 28, 2009
Most senior citizens recall the Congressional debates back in 1971 when the National Holiday Act changed the traditional Memorial Day observance from May 30 to the last Monday in May.
By so doing, Congress effectively undermined the very meaning of the day to the point where many of our citizens (and most, if not all, non-citizens) think that Memorial Day simply marks either the end of the school year, the beginning of summer fun, or both.
And why shouldn’t they think that? Memorial Day parades and public speeches in remembrance of our country’s war dead are almost a thing of the past. There are still a few parades and public commemoration events remaining throughout the country … but very few.
By contrast, there are Memorial Day “sales” at many nationwide big-box stores. Some communities have “arts and crafts” events, chili cook-offs, barbecues and 5-K runs — all under the banner and publicity “hook” of “Memorial Day.”
It just seems as if many of the general public do not want to concern themselves with a day of remembrance for all those who have died in defense of our country while serving in the United States military.
Fortunately, there are still some local Memorial Day observances by various (sometimes combined) veterans’ organizations. Many such observances are held on the last Monday in May while others are held on the traditional Memorial Day — May 30.
Regrettably, most Memorial Day observances are poorly attended by the general public — even though they are usually encouraged and invited to attend by event sponsors. Even the public schools do not seem to have enough time with their busy test-driven schedules to educate their students about the history and meaning of Memorial Day.
Perhaps it is that we don’t really want to think about the reality of just how many of our friends, neighbors and relatives actually lost their lives so that we might live in peace.
The death-total numbers are actually quite mind-numbing.
For example, just take World War II with approximately 419,000 American war dead or the Vietnam War with approximately 58,000 war dead. Those numbers seem staggering when compared with our war dead resulting from current-day “wars” in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Memorial Day should possibly also be a day that includes a sincere thanksgiving that our loss of precious American lives in all wars hasn’t been even worse. That kind of remembrance and giving of thanksgiving historically seems to apply to World War II the most.
Historians seem to agree that World War II probably exemplifies the deadliest military conflict in history. When we take that war alone (with war dead estimates ranging from 50 million to more than 70 million), we realize that United States casualties of nearly 419,000 (including about 1,700 civilians) war dead was tragic — but it could have been much worse had our military and its civilian commander-in-chief at the close of the war, President Harry S. Truman, not made courageous decisions and acted decisively upon those decisions.
By comparison to American war dead statistics during World War II, Poland experienced 5.6 million war dead or just over 16 percent of its population. The Soviet Union lost 23.1 million of its military and civilian population or about 14 percent of its population. France lost approximately 568,000 military and civilian citizens — or about 1.35 percent of its population. Yugoslavia lost 1 million of its population or 6.67 percent; China lost 20 million of its 518 million-population or 3.86 percent; and, the United Kingdom lost about 450,000 citizens or just less than 1 percent of its population.
Hitler’s Germany lost about 7.2 million people or just more than 10 percent of its total population. With the war-ending atomic bombs being dropped on Japan, that country’s loss was 2.7 million of its population or nearly 4 percent.
While the American lives lost during World War II were terribly high, they represented only 0.32 percent of the population of the United States at the time.
By contrast, Cuba lost only 100 of its 4.2 million people; Ireland lost only 200 of its 14.3 million people; Mexico only lost 100 of its 19.3 million people; Switzerland only lost 100 of its 4.2 million people; and Spain only lost 4,500 of its 25.6 million people.
Several of today’s Middle Eastern “hot spots” such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran were effectively neutral during World War II — in some cases secretly providing oil and other needed supplies and support simultaneously to rival warring countries. Those Middle Eastern countries combined war dead loses are estimated at less than 2,000 total personnel — counting both military and civilian.
Memorial Day these days may not be observed with the reverence and sacredness the way it once was done during the lifetimes of most senior citizens — at least not by many of today’s general public.
But, I’m confident that more than a few of those senior citizens and others reading this column today will be in attendance at H.U. Wood Post 245, The American Legion, 618 E. Kingsbury Street, Seguin, Texas at 11 a.m. on Saturday, May 30 for their traditional Memorial Day Service.
Hope to see you there.
© Grafe is a former managing editor of the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise and a former commander of H.U. Wood Post 245, The American Legion.