Memorial Day and the Families Left Behind
Commentary by Steven A. Smith
Our Memorial Day this year was like so many others.
The weather was cool. There were showers, even thunderstorms. Also moments of bright sun.
As always, I spent Saturday with Carla visiting local cemeteries and placing flowers on family graves.
There are no graves for most of my family as they were cremated, and the ashes spread. But my father’s cremains are in the Willamette National Cemetery in Portland, too far away for a visit this year.
As always, I am struck by the hundreds of American flags placed in the local cemeteries. The large flags line the roads and this year were waving briskly, making sharp crack sounds.
More interesting to me are the small flags placed on the graves of military veterans. There are hundreds of those, too. Most of the veterans in the cemeteries I visited lived long lives after their service. But there are a few killed in action in one war or another.
Spokane has its own national cemetery now and war dead are more likely to be buried there, some who died in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Memorial Day was first established after the Civil War to honor those Americans killed in service to their country. Since the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, about 7,000 American service members have been added to the rolls of dead.
As I watched families laying flowers on graves, it occurred to me that every American family in some way has been touched by war.
We Are Quick to Move on From News of War
And then I thought about the Russians and Ukrainians whose lives have been altered in unimaginable ways by their war. Do their war dead find peace in cemeteries covered in green grass and host to tall firs and blessed with magnificent views?
There is no such peace there, even for the dead.
We Americans are a funny people. We focus on a big news story for awhile, and then it begins to fade as something new develops. The debt ceiling crisis. Mass shootings. Inflation. Our own holiday.
Except for the big newspapers, like The New York Times, or the major news networks, the war in Ukraine has mostly disappeared. Old and routine news for us, but a daily struggle for survival for Ukrainians and a constant reminder of loss for Russians.
Numbers are hard to come by. Neither country wants to talk about war dead.
Reuters reported in April, “According to an assessment collated by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Russia has suffered 189,500-223,000 total casualties, including 35,500-43,000 killed in action and 154,000-180,000 wounded. Ukraine has suffered 124,500-131,000 total casualties, including 15,500-17,500 killed in action and 109,000-113,500 wounded in action…”
The war is slightly more than one-year-old, meaning those are staggering numbers.
And the numbers will grow.
Wars Are a Very Present Reality
Latest reports indicate the Ukrainians are about to launch a massive warm-weather offensive to take back territory lost in the first months of the conflict. Analysts say Russian troops have moved to defensive positions in the east and south, hoping to weather the onslaught. Morale is low and basic supplies becoming scarce. Meanwhile, tensions within the military high command further damage Russia’s war effort.
The Ukrainian offensive will be driven by arms and equipment provided by the West. Soon, Ukrainian pilots will be flying the most modern jets in the world.
What is left to Russia now is war by terror, drone and missile attacks that are aimed at both military and civilian targets. A rare daytime missile attack Monday sent Kyiv school children screaming through the streets.
To sustain the war on the ground, Russia must grow its armies, either through aggressive recruitment, which is not working, or another mass draft.
There also remains the terrifying prospect that Russian President Vladimir Putin, in desperation, will resort to tactical nuclear weapons. Russia began deploying such weapons in neighboring Belarus last week.
Meanwhile, military graves are becoming a common site in Russian and Ukrainian cemeteries. Families grieve no matter their side, no matter their opinion of the war.
All of this occurred to me as I watched families place flowers on the graves in our cemeteries. In the end, the nature of the war really does not matter much to the loved ones left behind. Whatever the war, wherever the place, cause, strategy and outcome are dictated by national leaders.
They move armies as pegs on a map.
But for affected families, all that is left, all that matters, are memories and flowers on a grave.
Steven A. Smith is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho having retired from full-time teaching at the end of May 2020. He writes a weekly opinion column. Smith is former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. As editor, Smith supervised all news and editorial operations on all platforms until his resignation in October 2008. Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years at the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, and was for five years editor and vice president of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Newspaper Management Center Advanced Executive Program and a mid-career development program at Duke University. He holds an M.A. in communication from The Ohio State University where he was a Kiplinger Fellow, and a B.S. in journalism from the University of Oregon.