Over three days in a small town in Pennsylvania nearly 8000 Americans died. They gave their 'full measure of devotion' during the battle of Gettysburg. There are no estimates of the total number whose injuries caused their later deaths, but a number of somewhere around 16,000 is likely given the rampant infection and unsophisticated medical practices of the day.
In a few hours on an otherwise beautiful stretch of beach in France more than 2400 Americans died in the face of withering German resistance. Between 1941 and 1945 more than 400,000 Americans were killed. These Americans gave their lives in a fight for the freedom of others around the world. Many of them are buried in cemeteries in the countries where they died.
In the five years since the beginning of the Iraq war just over 4000 have died. 400 of these young people were from Southern California. They went to Iraq in answer to duty's call. Many of them died protecting members of their squads or units. Many died at the hands of an unseen enemy.
Whether they died in the 'War Between the States,' WW1, WW2, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan or Iraq, these people all deserve our heartfelt gratitude and thanks.
Memorial Day is a day just for them. It is not a day to celebrate or remember others. It is not a day just for Barbecues and family gathering, though doing these things honors the sacrifice of so many. It is not a day to debate the worthwhileness or politics of Iraq.
Knowing the total number of war dead from each war tends to dehumanize the individuals. Though it is painful, we must remember that each of these soldiers came from a family and a home. They had hopes and dreams. There were things they loved and things they didn't like at all. There were people who loved them who were left behind to remember the people they were and to mourn the people they could have been.
One thing is sadly certain. Next memorial day there will be more war dead. In fact, two died this morning on a road in Iraq. In the end, their sacrifice is not heroic or political, it is personal. No matter the circumstances, their sacrifice is final. They know it. They are there anyway. That's why we honor them.