On Memorial Day, Americans honor the men and women of the U.S. armed forces who died while serving their country.
So far in the 21st century, more than 7,000 servicemembers gave their lives in active military engagements. That’s in addition to the more than 50,000 who were wounded in action. Most died in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were victims of two decades of conflict in the Middle East after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Almost certainly some who died weren’t even alive the day the Twin Towers fell.
Historians can argue over whether that mission was a success. What is unarguable is that it came at a high cost to life and well-being and that the cost fell more on some Americans than others.
Military recruits disproportionately come from middle-class neighborhoods, according to data collected by the Council on Foreign Relations from the U.S. Department of Defense. Surprisingly, the poorest Americans are neither over- nor underrepresented in the military. Unsurprisingly, the rich are far underrepresented among recruits.
Racial and ethnic minorities serve with greater frequency, but diversity decreases the higher one looks up the military hierarchy. And recruits are more likely to come from the South.
Put all that together, and the odds are that when troops die, the families left behind are more likely poor, racially diverse and rural than rich, white and urban.
Today, then, as Americans mourn and honor the war dead throughout the nation’s history, we should also remember that those who make that sacrifice represent communities and cultures that often face injustice at home every day. They fought and died for something better.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who serves on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, understands the debt that the nation owes all veterans and their families. “Our obligation to servicemembers and veterans must go beyond statements and ceremonies,” she said. “This Memorial Day, I hope that people across Washington state will join me in not only thanking and remembering our servicemembers, veterans and their families, but also pushing to get them the resources and support they’ve earned after their service.”
The one heartening thing on a somber day is that perhaps the interminable wars of the 21st century soon will end. Iraq has all but wound down, and President Joe Biden has promised to bring troops home from Afghanistan by the fall.
With any luck, next year on Memorial Day, the tally of service members killed in combat will be far less than it is today.