Every year, as the Memorial Day parade marches by our office, we’re struck by the fading number of World War II veterans among the ranks. It never fails to produce a lump in our throats. The strong men and women of our parents’ generation who we remember seeing just yesterday on the streets of Sag Harbor are stooped a bit more, marching a little slower with each passing year, or riding in convertibles because they can no longer walk the route. And each year, there are more of Sag Harbor’s soldiers missing as roughly 1,000 W.W.II veterans die every day across the country.
As this generation recedes into history, we also see a loss of innocence in the way in which this nation has long understood war and its warriors. Notions of right vs. wrong and good vs. evil are continually blurred on the new battlefield. The idea that you once could identify an enemy by the uniform he wore or the border he crossed seems almost old-fashioned by today’s military standards.
The complications of modern warfare make it extremely difficult to view conflicts in the simple terms that defined the big wars of the early 20th century. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, tribal loyalties, roadside bombs, indefinable borders and a shifting suicidal enemy who operates in disguise amongst civilians or even within our own ranks has redefined and complicated the battlefield.
But this is the nature of warfare in the 21st century. And we need to remember that its by-products are being heaped upon a new generation of veterans who are coming back from the wars with terrible physical injuries or post traumatic stress disorder on a scale we’ve never witnessed before. It’s a new kind of warfare and one we don’t completely yet understand. So some might find it’s easier just to tune out, sitting, as we are, thousands of miles away from the action.
But we can’t afford to tune out this country’s newest veterans and those servicemen and women who are still deeply involved in these conflicts overseas. And we certainly can’t tune out those who have given their lives. War weary though we may be, it’s important that Memorial Day continue to be about more than burgers on the grill and an extra day off. And here’s why — as of Tuesday, the Department of Defense has identified 4,390 American service members who have died since the start of the Iraq war and 1,069 who have died as a part of the Afghan war and related operations. So on Monday, let’s all remind veterans and the families of those who never came home that even if theirs is a war we don’t fully understand, their sacrifice is something we surely do.