Jon Meacham: The Price of Forgetting

[Jon Meacham is the editor of Newsweek.]

The beginning of the end of War, wrote the novelist Herman Wouk, lies in Remembrance. But what happens if Americans know so little of war that they have nothing to remember? Today, in the spring of 2010, nine years into one war in Afghanistan and seven years into another in Iraq, we are trapped in a strange moment: America is a country at war, but hardly anybody notices.

This Monday is Memorial Day. It is an editorial commonplace to lament that federal holidays, from Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday to Veterans’ Day, are now more about long weekends and department-store sales. The failure to commemorate the war dead, however, has a particularly corrosive effect on the country, for once we forget the price of combat, it becomes all too easy to allow others—and other people’s children—to pay it....

But we have forgotten, and one reason is that so few of us—I include myself—have any direct connection to those who are fighting now. The military has become another country, a place where a disproportionate number of disadvantaged young Americans go to find their way. An all-volunteer force has produced a highly professional officer class, and many children of veterans enlist to carry on the tradition of their fathers. Once the burden of military sacrifice is isolated, though, the sense of responsibility that the citizens of a democracy have to be vigilant about the projection of force can grow diffuse, too. Wars become distant, casualties go little noticed....

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