Memorial Day

Our story begins with a citizens militia standing their ground at Lexington and Concord in 1775.

It continues in 1812, with a peculiar war that saw very little change in terms of territory or power dynamics. The United States lost almost every land engagement and Washington burned, but the victory at sea of American-built frigates captivated many in both the old and new worlds.

The young nation stretched its muscles in 1846 by capturing vast territories from Mexico, a nation with a far larger military captained by “the Napoleon of the West;” Antonio López de Santa Anna.

The next great conflict to embroil the United States was fated to be the US Civil War. Between them, the Union and Confederacy suffered only somewhat fewer deaths than the country would in its involvement in the Second World War.

Young American men volunteered by the tens of thousands, and many more were drafted into the largest armed forces the continent had ever seen. Used to the European tradition of putting armies together out of whatever vagrant scum was at hand, a Union general reviewing a newly raised regiment of Minnesotans; tall, fit, motivated young men, remarked in shock “Men such as these, food for powder?!” By the end of the conflict, over 200,000 would suffer just that fate.

The First Minnesota

The war ground on for year after year, with the initiative sliding inexorably to the more populous and heavily industrialized north. Nevertheless, there were times when, capitalizing on a battlefield success, the Confederacy might have been able to bring the conflict to a swift conclusion in their favor.

Finally, pushed back on all fronts and exsanguinated by Grant’s attritional strategy, the Confederacy was forced to surrender.

The next major conflict in which Americans participated was the First World War. The presence of over a million US soldiers helped turn the tide of the last German offensive, and proved an important element in the Allied victory.

Sadly, the peace was flawed. Punished too harshly to forget but not enough to be kept quiescent, Germany rose under the Nazi banner and conquered most of Europe. They then turned their sights on their erstwhile ally, the USSR. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the world, the ambitious Japanese empire was stirred to wrath by American embargoes of critical industrial supplies and struck at European and American possessions throughout the Pacific.

The US scrambled to supply its allies with war materiel as it assembled the largest military force in its history. Striking back in North Africa and the Pacific, the first battles were not encouraging.

It seems to be the American way to go to war enthusiastic but woefully unprepared, only to suffer terrible casualties relearning the art of battle before coming back hard to achieve victory. This conflict would be no different in that respect, though it would be far costlier than any previous learning experience.

At the end of it, America stood astride the world; an industrial, technological, and military colossus without precedent in human history.

But it was not a lone colossus, for in counterpoint there was the totalitarian Communist USSR. With unyielding control of half of Europe; its leadership toiled endlessly to expand their sphere of influence. The first hot engagement of this “cold” war was on the Korean peninsula. The tide of battle swung up and down this landmass, finally settling into a long stalemate that ended, more or less, with an armistice in 1953.

US involvement in another Asian country, Vietnam, grew from opposing French colonial rule, to actually arming the Communists for a time, to ineptly installing a dictatorial regime more concerned with liquidating their political opposition than resisting subversion and invasion by their neighbors. Eventually the US sent its armed forces in an attempt to stabilize the situation and preserve South Vietnam’s independence. After years of war America decided that the putative benefits were not worth the costs and withdrew its military, and eventually its support, from the South, which fell to a Northern invasion not long after.

The swift, relatively bloodless coalition victory in the Gulf War gave some hope that the Pax Americana and modern technology had freed us from the specter of long, messy conflicts like Vietnam forevermore.

But those who have studied the lessons of history knew better. More than ten long years of counterinsurgency in the complex tribal environments of Iraq and Afghanistan now finally seem to be winding down, but growing instability and extremist governments in North Africa and the Middle-East, increasing frictions between Japan and China, and, as always, the specter of the unexpected haunt our hopes of for a peaceful future.

The number of pictures allotted each conflict in this post is proportional to the number of war dead the US suffered. Those wars in which 50,000 or fewer American soldiers died are represented by one painting. For bloodier wars, each additional 50,000 dead are represented by an additional painting, rounding to the nearest 50,000.

In Flanders Field

by Lieutenant John McCrae, MD Canadian Army

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.


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