THERE WAS a time not long ago in our history — 70 years or so — when the most dread event in an American home was likely to be the arrival of a telegram. That was the way the military notified families that they had lost someone in the war. In those years, 1941-45, hundreds of thousands of people received them — spouses, mothers, fathers. It was not a common experience, but it was a shared one, and everyone knew what the small gold-star flag in a person’s window meant and why it commanded universal respect.
In the wars that followed — Korea, Vietnam and today’s — the numbers of those lost have been somewhat smaller, the gold stars less frequently seen. The telegrams have been replaced by personal visits, in which emotions run the gamut from stunned disbelief to anger to resignation. The sadness has never been alleviated. The military newspaper Stars and Stripes tells of a Pittsburgh mother with two sons serving in Iraq who, when soldiers appeared at her door, said simply, “Tell me which one.”
The American wars of the 21st century have so far not brought casualties on a massive scale, but the pain they inflict is displayed graphically in this newspaper in pages full of photographs of those who have died serving their country. And the burden these wars — or counterinsurgency operations or whatever you might want to call them — have placed on the people who serve in an overstretched military is beyond the comprehension of many of their fellow citizens.
In her book “Standing By,” Alison Buckholtz, a Navy wife, writes of “the gulf that separates military and civilian families” in this time of multiple deployments and family separation: “It’s not as if I expected to look around the mall and see people sobbing, but there was — and still is — a seriousness missing from American cultural life, seriousness that wartime demands. . . . The country has not been asked to make serious sacrifices since 9/11.”
It does seem to us that Memorial Day has meant more to much of the country in recent years, and there is a widespread respect for the men and women in uniform and an appreciation of what they have done for their country. There is, too, a greater awareness of the trauma and lasting damage inflicted on many of those who survived the worst shocks of war. But we have not yet come to a full understanding of the debt owed those who have died and suffered for this country.