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It’s the saddest reading around: the little announcements that dribble out of the Pentagon every day or two—those terse, relatively uninformative death notices: rank; name; age; small town, suburb, or second-level city of origin; means of death (“small arms fire,” “improvised explosive device,” “the result of gunshot wounds inflicted by an individual wearing an Afghan National Army uniform,” or sometimes something vaguer like “while conducting combat operations,” “supporting Operation Enduring Freedom,” or simply no explanation at all); and the unit the dead soldier belonged to. They are seldom 100 words, even with the usual opening line: “The Department of Defense announced today the death of a soldier who was supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.” Sometimes they include more than one death.
They are essentially bureaucratic notices designed to draw little attention to themselves. Yet cumulatively, in their hundreds over the last decade, they represent a grim archive of America’s still ongoing, already largely forgotten second Afghan War, and I’ve read them obsessively for years.
Into the Memory Hole
May is the official month of remembrance when it comes to our war dead, ending as it does on the long Memorial Day weekend when Americans typically take to the road and kill themselves and each other in far greater numbers than will die in Afghanistan. It’s a weekend for which the police tend to predict rising fatalities and news reports tend to celebrate any declines in deaths on our roads and highways.
Quiz Americans and a surprising number undoubtedly won’t have thought about the “memorial” in Memorial Day at all—especially now that it’s largely a marker of the start of summer and an excuse for cookouts.
How many today are aware that, as Decoration Day, it began in 1865 in a nation still torn by grief over the loss of—we now know— up to 750,000 dead in the first modern war, a wrenching civil catastrophe in a then-smaller and still under-populated country? How many know that the first Decoration Day was held in 1865 with 10,000 freed slaves and some Union soldiers parading on a Charleston, South Carolina, race track previously frequented by planters and transformed in wartime into a grim outdoor prison? The former slaves were honoring Union prisoners who had died there and been hastily buried in unmarked graves, but as historian Kenneth Jackson has written, they were also offering “a declaration of the meaning of the war and of their own freedom.”
Those ceremonies migrated north in 1866, became official at national cemeteries in 1868 and grew into ever more elaborate civic remembrances over the years. Even the South, which had previously marked its grief separately, began to take part after World War I as the ceremonies were extended to the remembrance of all American war dead. Only in 1968, in the midst of another deeply unpopular war, did Congress make it official as Memorial Day, creating the now traditional long holiday weekend.