Memorial Day: What’s in a Number?


Numbers are telling. They are recited and offered to make a point. The statics show, and the percentages are, and the numbers emphasize the stories point. In 1866-68 the women of the North and the South began to place flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers who gave up their lives to fight over a house divided. They coined this on May 30, 1868 to be known as Decoration Day. They did not count their hours of grief. There are no numbers for flowers placed at rows of graves in fields that once were counting on a harvest. The years rolled out of the nineteenth century and an American culture remained changed and engaged by the loss that wars cost families-society-and freedom’s conversations.

Thanks to census and data gathering we know 498,332 Union and Confederate soldiers died in the bloodiest war in America. Less than 7000 died on the battle field in the Revolutionary and the War of 1812 combined.  These women left behind to grieve such catastrophic losses to the lineage of family, pain of a country, and souls gone at the youth and prime of life. Their grief of tears, and resilience to cast a shadow on the cost of war. What are the numbers of tears fallen? What is the number of mothers who recall the birth and hope they had in a son or daughter lost to war’s casualty list? How many children were never born? What is the tabulations of unanswered prayers for the return of a soldier?

In the twentieth century, all the wars combined offer us less casualty rates than the Civil War took. Does that lessen the cost of loss for those numbers dead in the wars on foreign soil? According to PBS.Org data American lives lost in combat on the battle field number around 1.1 million since Revolutionary War to present War on Terror. Today, we honor our fallen veterans who fought. They fought and continue to fight for beliefs and preservations regarding ideals like rights, democracy, protection, and freedoms. In 1971, this day of decorating graves became a National Federal Holiday known as Memorial Day. I was a twelve-year-old girl in 1971. Dad was career Navy. Uncles fought in WWII. Other ancestors fought in every war going back to the Revolutionary War. In those days the news covered the details of the war. We argued it out, figured it out, and finished it out well and poorly like war tends to do. But, we were not unware of the costs and contributions of war in our lives.

Today, less than 1% of the population is involved in the military activity our country relies upon. What is the cost of freedom and military preparedness; if we become apathetic and unintelligent to the work of protective military armed forces? President Robert Kennedy once said, “Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he or she sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. Crossing each other from a million different centuries of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

The juxtaposition to consider is in many quotes of those who know about war. Reflecting continues in the words of George C. Marshall, “There has been considerable comment over the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to a soldier. I am afraid this does not seem as remarkable to me as it quite evidently appears to others. I know a great deal of the horrors and tragedies of war. The cost of war in human lives is constantly spread before me, written neatly in many ledgers whose columns are gravestones. I am deeply moved to find some means or method of avoiding another calamity of war.”

“A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth, for the labors men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge. The best introduction to astronomy is to think of the nightly heavens as a little lot of stars belonging to one’s own homestead.” by George Eliot which is the pen name for Mary Ann Lewes

As I reflect on the value of numbers and ledgers of balance to the cost of wars; I find myself moved by these quotes. Since humankind left Eden and humankind struggled with God, self, and others there has been warring. Only God has known the number of the tears shed, the gallons of blood spilt, the justice sought, the wrongs done, the rights avenged, the intent approved, the purpose given, the loyalty demanded, the prayers offered, the legacy bequeathed, the inspirations inherited, and the price of lives sacrificed. God knows exactly the numbers and the costs. I can only pay homage on this Memorial Day. I can only pick up where those women of 1868 began in their grief and determination to honor the fallen. Until there comes a day that there is no need of war(s) I too will honor the fallen. Thank you for your service. We are a grateful nation.