Tomorrow once again commemorates Memorial Day, when we fittingly honor those who forfeited their lives for our country. I think of the Civil War with its estimated 600,000 deaths and World War II with another calamitous toll of 400,000. And then there are the recent 6,000 deaths in the Iraq-Afghanistan conflicts. Altogether, some 1,300,000 of our men and women have died in our conflicts from the Revolutionary War through the present.
Wars, regardless of why they’re fought, are troubling in what they say about the human condition and consummate surrender of our humanity. We can boast of our scientific advances all we want, but the truth is we’re as primitive as ever in our troubling aggression, capacity for anger, and acting out our malice, often over quarrels that a century hence will nullify their significance.
Today marks another memorial of catastrophic horror that makes our Gettysburg with its 3-day violence and 75,000 dead and wounded, pale in comparison. One hundred years ago today, French and German forces engaged one another in what became a 10 month stalemated trench conflict, resulting in 800,000 deaths, until German withdrawal and forfeiture of just five square miles of ground.
I could tell you about other conflicts as well such as the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) in which an estimated thirty percent of the German civilian population perished from famine and disease, or more recently, of the deaths of 7 million Soviet citizens in WWII.
Voltaire had it right about the scourge of war when he remarked that “men appear to prefer ruining one another’s fortunes, and cutting each other’s throats about a few paltry villages, to extending the grand means of human happiness.”
The greatest thing you and I can do to honor our war dead is to be peacemakers, shunning those who preach violence, often for political ends, appealing to our fears rather than our capacity for love, empathy and compromise in promoting “human happiness.”
In a park across from the UN in New York you can find what’s called “the Isaiah wall” with the message of that Old Testament prophet epitomizing that so far allusive quest: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they learn war any more.”
That journey begins right now, this Memorial Day, with you and me.