The number of Americans who have died in battle since the Revolutionary War is 657,946. When we look at that number printed on the page in black in white, it does not cry out. It does not tell the stories of the men and women who died. It does not speak of the bravery and the sacrifice, not of the soldiers who died nor the families who watched them go away to war, never to return.
Politicians are good at telling us about bravery and sacrifice. Few, very few of them ever serve. Fewer still have ever seen battle. But they are good at talking about it, and about how everyone who dies has contributed to the great cause. The speeches have not changed much since the Revolutionary War.
War is ugly. It is chaotic and messy. It usually takes a couple of generations for us to find out, but war is rarely about the reasons given by the politicians. War is usually always about business and politics, though stating that may be somewhat redundant.
My father was drafted to serve in WWII in 1944 when he lost his student deferral. He lost that deferral when my grandfather voted for the wrong person in a local election, or so he was told by someone on the draft board at the time. Nevertheless, Dad thought that serving his country was the right thing to do, so he went willingly.
My father went through basic training for the Navy in, of all places, central Texas. So many GI’s were being processed at such a rapid rate in 1944 that the Navy was using every available facility for training. Dad’s swim test consisted of being herded across an irrigation ditch with a bunch of other recruits. He “couldn’t swim a lick,” he used to say, but the ditch was shallow enough that he could bounce on the tips of his toes while waving his arms.
After basic training he was garrisoned near Terminal Island outside of Los Angeles while waiting for his ship to arrive. Dad always loved music and he was an excellent dancer. In high school he had even won a couple of ribbons in dance competitions at the John C. Campbell Folk School. So when Dad and his buddy heard that Tommy Dorsey was playing in town one weekend, they were determined to see him. They slipped off the base on a Friday night and made their way to the club where Tommy was playing. They figured the risk was worth this once in a lifetime chance.
As luck would have it, dad’s friend and his partner won a dance contest that night. There were reporters in the club following Tommy Dorsey and flash bulbs popping. Someone snapped a picture of the contest winners, which appeared in the local paper the next day.
The Navy was not amused, but the War in the Pacific was heating up and the authorities had no intention of wasting two freshly trained and badly needed sailors. Nevertheless, they confined Dad and his friend to their barracks for a couple of days – just long enough for them to miss their ship. While they waited for the next available berth, that ship was sunk and went down with all hands.
For months, everyone back home thought that my dad had been killed; everyone, that is, except for my grandmother, who prayed morning and night for him. She was a woman of Faith, and she knew that he was still alive.
During his two years at sea, Dad survived typhoons, torpedoes and kamikaze attacks. He had so many near misses that for the rest of his life, he attributed his survival to his mother’s prayers.
Six hundred and fifty seven thousand, nine hundred and forty six stories. Perhaps now, one more of those numbers is something more than a number. Many of you have your own stories. Never forget them. Pass them on. We need to remember each and every one of them, every time the politicians come around waving the flag. They speak such beautiful and inspirational words when they send us to war, but most of them will never know what that flag really means.