Holiday is a time to remember

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 26, 2003

We necessarily conceive Memorial Day as a serious and sobering observance, because it is war dead we memorialize. We honor those who sacrificed their lives, and we appreciate the continuing sacrifice of families from whom war has torn loved ones. We regret every life lost and consider even one to be a heavy cost to pay even to protect our nation. I here suggest another dimension, a happier and somewhat encouraging factor. With each successive war, America is learning to place increasing value on human life and we have become dedicated to keeping this cost proportionate to the victory achieved.

It wasn't always so. We inherited from European nations, especially Britain, France, and Prussia, the assumption that lives of soldiers are not entirely different from loss in business. You run equipment into the ground and then retire it; to produce meat you slaughter the herd.

From ancient times through the American Civil War, it was just understood a great number of lives had to be lost. As long as we killed more of the enemy than he killed of ours, we took it we had won. When a regimental commander sent a rifle company into a skirmish, he expected to lose most of the soldiers. He could only hope that after each battle he could collect enough survivors from a decimated battalion to reform at least a company and that by the end of the war he would have at least a battalion to march home.

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It wasn't that most commanders didn't care, but that they refused to count the cost because they were honestly persuaded there was no other way to wage war than to throw thousands of lives into the consuming mouth of the enemy. However, some commanders actually did not care as long as they won. They considered lives of the ordinary soldiers quite expendable and with marred but clear conscience sent thousands to certain death, even when they knew results would have no real worth.

I have studied the names on monuments of those from an American county killed in World War II and mourned the cost to this county. Everyone knew someone who never returned. Then I counted the names on such monuments from World War I in tiny British villages and recognized not one young man ever returned from France.

Each war since the Civil War has cost proportionately a smaller number of lives. On the one hand is more lethal weapons and efficient logistics and, on the other, infinitely improved medical care. It must be admitted such is probably the major cause for fewer casualties, and it disturbs me that we simply haven't done better than fighting better.

A more encouraging and worthy reason, nonetheless, is we have become less willing to sacrifice lives and more willing to spend money to protect them. The newer doctrine is overwhelming force as a minimum requirement for the commitment of forces.

If we are to wage war, we will sacrifice materiel before personnel. We will not save money by losing lives, but save lives by spending huge amounts of money.

During the time I was inside the Pentagon, I became immediately familiar with how very much lives are valued at the highest levels. Contingency plans always include casualty estimates, and these risks are measured against the mission to ensure proportionality. No human loss is acceptable, and any loss is but tolerable and this not one more than necessary to save the greater number of lives.

The lives of our enemies are also respected. That terrible sounding term "collateral damage" is not intended as a euphemism but an assertion that civilian deaths are never the goal but something to be tolerated painfully.

None of this is a justification for war, for war cannot be justified. It can only be tolerated as occasionally a necessary evil. Every life lost, on both sides, is a terrible tragedy.

The good news is that each Memorial Day fewer new graves need to be decorated; the bad news is there will be more graves. The prayer this Memorial Day is, then, that any war will save more lives than it will cost.