Small Wars Journal

Memorial Day 2017: ‘Play it Again, Uncle Sam’

Thu, 05/25/2017 - 5:19am

Memorial Day 2017: ‘Play it Again, Uncle Sam’

Christopher Kelly

Memorial Day this year calls on all Americans with particular significance. It calls on us to look backward at our past and forward to the many uncertainties and challenges facing our nation overseas. Important anniversaries over the course of the year have served as powerful reminders of that past.

This past April, we commemorated the centennial of the American entry into World War I. President Wilson led us into the “war to end all wars,” ending America’s traditional isolationism. Over a hundred thousand Americans would be killed in World War I, a war that claimed around 17 million total victims. Wilson conceived of the League of Nations as a means of ending costly and wasteful wars, but the US Senate balked at joining the League. The harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles then created a twenty-year truce rather than a lasting peace. Appalled by the cost of war and intoxicated by the Roaring Twenties, many Americans retreated back into an isolationist attitude, embracing Charles Lindbergh and the America First movement.

But in 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, plunging the world into the costliest war in human history. Over the course of just under four years, over 16 million American men and women served in some capacity in the war. Today, fewer than a million World War II service vets are still alive.

This year, 2017, is the 75th anniversary of perhaps the most significant year in World War II, for 1942 was essentially the turning point in the war. That year featured Doolittle’s Raid on Tokyo and the battles of Midway, El Alamein, and Stalingrad. Up until 1942, the Axis was victorious on all fronts. After 1942, Axis forces were in full retreat. Where were you in ’42?

Seventy-five years ago this year, the classic film Casablanca was released. When asked about his nationality, Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, replied, “I’m a drunkard.” But Rick could not remain neutral when confronted with the brutal reality of fascism. The premiere of Casablanca, which won the Academy Awards’ Best Picture of the Year in 1942, was rushed forward to capitalize on the American landings in North Africa in Operation Torch. Casablanca helped to explain to skeptical Americans why World War II (especially in Europe) was America’s fight.

Americans responded to the call and went overseas to fight in record numbers. Just over 400,000 mostly young Americans would never return from their duties in the Second World War. This Memorial Day, many Americans will visit cemeteries such as Arlington in Virginia, and many more around the nation and the world.

This fall will mark sixteen years that American troops have been engaged in Afghanistan fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban – a war of unprecedented duration. There are soldiers serving in Afghanistan today who were only toddlers when the Twin Towers in New York were struck on September 11, 2001 by hijacked commercial airliners – an event that changed our world. Over two trillion dollars have been spent trying to bring a measure of stability to Afghanistan. Over 2,000 American soldiers have been killed there, and over 20,000 have been wounded.

Even as we commemorate the past, we must consider the many dangers we are confronting today and those that lie ahead. In the Middle East, we must face the challenge posed by ruthless ISIS operatives who have waged a war against the West. The Syrian civil war has claimed well over 300,000 lives and created the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Syria’s president Assad has, on at least two occasions, used chemical weapons against his own people. Putin’s Russia continues to rearm, supports the Assad dictatorship, and threatens its neighbors, including NATO members in the Baltics.  The bluster and posturing of Kim Jong-un are increasingly worrisome as the North Korean dictator attempts to gain the technology to develop intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking our homeland. Our political and military leadership must carefully balance the dangers of action and the dangers of inaction in the “hermit kingdom.”

Memorial Day imposes a duty on all Americans to remember the sacrifice of our fallen heroes, and to reflect prayerfully on how we can best steer a course through our dangerous and turbulent world. We are compelled to remember the necessity for American engagement in the world, but also its staggering price in terms of blood and treasure.