Memorial Day, 2012

photo A soldier stands in formation in front of the American flag during a deployment ceremony at the Tennessee National Guard Headquarters in Chattanooga, Tenn.

There is always an especially poignant aura attached to Memorial Day. Though strict observance of the day has strayed from its original intent, the heart and soul of the holiday still is devoted to commemorating the men and women who have died in the nation's military service. Those who did so are, in the special phraseology associated with days of remembrance, "the honored dead." Those who die while in the nation's uniform should always be honored, but the turn of phrase has particular solemnity today.

Many past Memorial Days have been observed in times of peace. That, sadly, is not the case this year. American men and women continue to face death every moment of every day and night day in Afghanistan. Far too many have died there already, and every additional report that another son or daughter, brother or sister, husband or father, has fallen there is another bitter reminder that the cost of war is almost too high to bear.

Memorial Day, of course, is not the time to debate the merits of the United States' war, or any other. There is a time and place for that within the framework of a democratic society. Those discussions can wait a day. Today should be given over to remembering and honoring those who, again in the oratory specific to such holidays, sacrificed themselves "on the altar of freedom." Such sacrifice has long been the price of our liberty, and Americans have willingly paid it for nearly 250 years.

Those who have braved and survived the battlefield and the horrors attendant to it best understand how fragile life can be in such conditions. That's why comrades in arms are faithful attendees at ceremonies that honor the fallen on Memorial Days and at similar observances.

Many of those who have not faced death while in uniform or who devise the policies that send U.S. men and women in harm's way will take part in today's commemorations, and their presence is welcome. It should be instructive as well. Perhaps the ceremonies will remind them to think more deeply about any decision that employs war as an instrument of national policy.

The cost of that policy over the years, decades and centuries is woven inextricably into the nation's history. Consider the toll over the years. While it is impossible to determine precisely how many Americans have died in battle, the Defense Department, surely one of the more authoritative of sources, lists the following numbers who died in combat:

• 4,435 died in the Revolutionary War;

• 2,260 died in the War of 1812;

• 1,733 died in the Mexican War;

• 214,939 died in the Civil War -- 140,414 for the Union and 74,525 for the Confederacy;

• 385 died in the Spanish-American War;

• 53,402 died in World War I;

• 291,557 died in World War II;

• 33,739 died in the Korean War;

• 47,434 died in the Vietnam War;

• 147 died in the Persian Gulf War;

• 4,486 died in the Iraq war;

• 1,979 have died, so far, in the Afghanistan War.

That ghastly accounting does not include others who perished while fighting Indians in this country or in small-scale conflicts, hostage rescue efforts and other military actions around the globe. Nor does it count the many tens of thousands who died of illness or from noncombat injuries while in uniform. Indeed, far more men died from non-combat illnesses and injuries during the Civil War, historians say, than perished in combat.

Despite such a grievous price paid in lives lost, many Americans still view Memorial Day as a time for travel and for family fun. There's nothing wrong with that, but those activities can be pursued after taking some time -- even a few minutes will do -- to remember those honored today. They can do so in a moment of personal recollection or prayer, if that is their wont, but they should remember and honor in some way those who fought and died and those whose lives were changed forever by their loss.

For those who prefer a larger gathering, there are Memorial Day observances here and elsewhere. Special ceremonies will be held at 11 a.m. at the Chattanooga National Cemetery at Bailey and Holtzclaw Avenues. The tens of thousands of markers there, the crack of rifles firing a salute and the playing of "Taps" are powerful reminders of the meaning of Memorial Day.

Area residents, like Americans everywhere, are free to observe -- or not observe -- Memorial Day in whatever manner they see fit. Having that choice is one of the blessings bestowed on the nation by those who answered its call to arms.

Still, taking a moment or more to acknowledge the debt that the many who have not served owe those who died in the nation's service would seem to be a worthwhile down payment on validating one's citizenship. On a day of memory, there is no more important mission than honoring those who died so that we can continue to live as free men and women.