THIS IS a strange sort of Memorial Day: The country has been at war (at least as the word is defined by reasonably straightforward people) for more than two months now, conducting military operations day and night in distant regions against a determined enemy. And yet it has suffered not one combat casualty: no deaths or maimings by enemy fire, no telegrams or visits from grim military messengers, no names to be engraved on town tablets.
Remember that the first of these memorial observances came after the Civil War, in which more than a half-million Americans died. In a nation of fewer than 40 million, practically everyone had suffered a loss, even if it was only at second hand. The emotions on this day of remembrance were deep and all but universal. How different from today, when Americans are a quarter-century removed from the last war in which thousands died, and the day's meaning is becoming more and more an abstraction -- for those who give it any thought at all.
War hasn't become bloodless, of course. People are suffering and dying in the one going on now, and Americans may too, in time. But for now this conflict is remote from the everyday lives of most in this country. The stresses and hardships of the Armed Forces and their families are borne by a small part of the population. The long absences at sea, the overworked flight and carrier crews and the troops living in tents in the Balkans are all distant concerns for the great majority in this country.
That division will be reflected to some extent in today's activities: speeches, wreath-layings and parades in some places, picnics, pool parties and Memorial Day sales in many more. This doesn't mean the country's war dead are in danger of being forgotten; their families and friends will remember them for a long time to come. What does seem to be fading is a common appreciation of the example they set -- some understanding, as we celebrate by the millions each year on these perfect 80-degree afternoons in late May, of how young men full of the promise of life resolved to face the possibility that they would never see another such day.