A week ago Friday, I was scooting around Lake Kiowa on my PWC when I noticed a flag at half-mast. I wondered who had died. The only person I could think of was Jerry Sloan, the long-time coach of the Utah Jazz. I doubted, here in Texas, that the half-mast flag would be for him. Then it hit me. Duh! It was Memorial Day weekend. It saddens me a little that, for many of us, Memorial Day is just another reason to have a barbeque with the family. While no one enjoys getting together with the family for good food and fun more than me, I figured it was also time to reflect on those who gave all so the rest of us might live free.
Growing up, we called it Decoration Day. It was a day the family went to the cemetery and decorated graves. I remember some graves had little American flags next to their headstones, honoring military veterans. And that is what started it all. Soon after the Civil War, people began decorating the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers. A Civil War veteran, General John A. Logan, made the holiday official by declaring, “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”
It wasn’t until 1971 that Decoration Day became Memorial Day, and moved from May 30th each year to the last Monday of May. Despite the well-intended efforts of my Texas neighbor, on Memorial Day, the proper way to fly the flag is to first raise it quickly to the top of the pole, then slowly lower it to half-mast until noon, and then raise it back to the top (or full mast) for the rest of the day. In 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act, which asks all Americans to pause at 3:00 pm on Memorial Day to give a minute of silence in honor of those who died while in military service. Who knew?
And many have died in such service. According to statistics published last year by the Department of Defense, here are the number of military personnel who have died in battle:
- The Revolutionary War: 4,435
- The War of 1812: 2,260
- The Indian Wars: 1,000
- The Mexican War: 13,283
- The Civil War: 498,332
- The Spanish American War: 2,446
- World War I: 116,516
- World War II: 405,399
- The Korean War: 54,246
- The Vietnam War: 90,220
- The Wars on Terror: 6,852
- The total number of American soldiers killed in war is over 1.1 million. The Civil War remains our bloodiest. Two percent of the country’s population died, which is the equivalent of 6 million today. Our bloodiest battle was the battle of Argonne Forest during World War I, where over 26,000 American soldiers died. During World War II, about 12 percent of the total U.S. population was a part of the armed forces. Today, out of a nation of nearly 329 million people, only 1.3 million Americans are in active duty military, and another 800,000 serve in the reserves—less than one percent.
Growing up, my parents had a copy of the film, Gone With the Wind.[i] As a kid, I found the movie boring. But one scene had an impact on me and helped me visualize the horrors of the Civil War. It was this scene following the Battle of Atlanta:
But war is not about the numbers killed or wounded. Real people are involved and affected by it, and none more than family and friends at home. Vera Brittain was one of those. She served as a nurse during World War I and witnessed the death of her brother, her fiancée, and two of her closest friends. Here is a scene from the movie, Testament of Youth[ii] (based on her memoir):
We sometimes forget the suffering, pain, and grief that results from war is the same on both sides. There is no real victor in war, except perhaps the manufacturer of coffins.
The generation who lived through World War II became known as the greatest generation because of their courage and strength of character. Perhaps the best example of those qualities is Desmond Doss, who, as a conscientious objector, volunteered to serve as a medic. As this scene from Hacksaw Ridge[iii] illustrates, because of his religious convictions, his enemy was not only the Japanese but sometimes his fellow Americans:
The U.S. Government twice awarded Doss the Bronze Star for his actions in Guam and the Phillippines. Then, during the battle of Okinawa, he saved the lives of 75 of his fellow soldiers and received the Medal of Honor for his actions. He remains today the only conscientious objector to receive that honor.
You don’t find too many comedies made about war. But perhaps the best movie made about the Korean War is just that—a comedy. I saw MASH[iv] while in high school. Here is a trailer for the film that gives a glimpse of blood and laughter surrounding at least one MASH unit:
My high school friend’s dad was a surgeon during the Korean War in a MASH unit. He told us the film is a fair representation of what his life was like during the war. You always had to be joking, pranking, and looking at the bright side of things, or the pain, despair, and death would drive you crazy.
I was a teenager for most of the Vietnam War. I was old enough to know that I didn’t support the war (primarily because I could be one of those fighting it), but too young to understand the horrors of it entirely, and what it did to the young men who fought there. The movie, The Last Full Measure,[v] tells the story of how a group of Vietnam vets worked for almost 35 years after the war to get a fellow soldier, Airman William H. Pitsenbarger, Jr., awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. In this scene, Tom Tulley (played by William Hurt) exhibits survivor’s guilt when he admits that he was glad it was Pitsenbarger, not him, that entered the jungle to help the injured, and ultimately died because of his actions:
Even those who survive the killing come back changed—many scarred by what they experienced. And sometimes those scars are just as deep in the ones they left at home.
Similar to Desmond Doss, Pitsenbarger was an Air Force pararescue airman—those medics in helicopters whose job it was to help the injured on the ground below. He flew over 300 missions during the war and later died in a battle after rescuing 60 of his fellow soldiers.
We are now fighting the war against terror. Similar to the Vietnam War, I wonder whether this war is worth the sacrifice of so many young men and women. But I will save the politics of war for another blog post. Whatever you think of war, all of us should admire how the military honors their dead. My favorite film in that regard is Taking Chance.[vi] Here is one of my favorite scenes, followed by a tribute to the real Chance Phelps, upon which this movie is based:
That clip hits me in the gut every time. Similar to Lt. Colonel Mike Strobl (played by Kevin Bacon), I did not know Chance Phelps or any other person who has died in the war on terrorism. But today I miss them. I grieve for their families. And I thank them all for their ultimate sacrifice.
Perhaps the best way we can honor the sacrifices of our military men and women is to put them out of a job. Or, as John Lennon encourages us, let’s give peace a chance. I am not so naïve to think we could ever wholly dismantle our military. But we should hate war and declare peace wherever and whenever we can. Armed conflict should always be the last resort. In that regard, I repeat the words of Vera Brittain (played by Alicia Vikander) from Testament of Youth:
“I speak to those of us who are left behind—the mothers, the sisters, women—we send our men to war … because we think it is the right thing, the honorable thing. But all I can do is stand here and ask you, is it? Is it right? Can I find the courage to accept there might be another way? Perhaps their deaths have meaning only if we stand together now and say no. No to killing. No to war. No to the endless cycle of revenge. I say no more of it. No more.”
There has to be a better way. Helen Keller once said, “I do not want the peace that passes understanding; I want the understanding that brings peace.” Understanding ourselves and others is the key to peace. I close with these beautiful words of Graeme Edge: “And he thought of those he angered for he was not a violent man. And he thought of those he hurt, for he was not a cruel man. And he thought of those he frightened, for he was not an evil man. And he understood. He understood himself. Upon this, he saw when he was angered or knew hurt or felt fear it was because he was not understanding. And he learned compassion. And with his eye of compassion, he saw his enemies like unto himself. And he learned love.”
May it ever be so with all of us.
[i] Gone With the Wind:
- Production Companies: Selznick International Pictures and Metro-Golden-Mayer
- Directors: Victor Fleming and George Cukor
- Screenwriter: Sidney Howard (based on the book by Margeret Mitchell)
- Starring: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Thomas Mitchell
- Release date: January 17, 1940
[ii] Testament of Youth:
- Production Companies: BBC Films, BFI Film Fund, Heyday Films
- Director: James Kent
- Screenwriter: Juliette Towhidi (based on the Memoir of Vera Brittain)
- Starring: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Taron Egerton
- Release date: January 16, 2015
[iii] Hacksaw Ridge:
- Production Companies: Summit Enetertainment, Cross Creek Pictures, Demarest Films
- Director: Mel Gibson
- Screenwriters: Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight
- Starring: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, and Luke Bracey
- Release date: November 4, 2016
- Production Companies: Aspen Productions (I), Ingo Preminger Productions, Twentieth Century Fox
- Director: Robert Altman
- Screenwriter: Ring Lardner, Jr. (based on the novel by Richard Hooker)
- Starring: Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, Tom Skerritt
- Release date: March 18, 1970
[v] The Last Full Measure:
- Production Companies: Foresight Unlimited, Provocator, SSS Entertainment
- Director: Todd Robinson
- Screenwriter: Todd Robinson
- Starring: Sebastian Stan, Alison Sudol, Asher Miles Fallica
- Release date: January 24, 2020
[vi] Taking Chance:
- Production Companies: HBO Films, Motion Picture Corporation of America, Civil Dawn Pictures
- Director: Ross Katz
- Screenwriters: Michael Strobl and Ross Katz
- Starring: Kevin Bacon, Tom Aldredge, Nicolas Art
- Release date: February 21, 2009