On Memorial Day, it is proper to solemnly reflect upon the sacrifices, including the ultimate sacrifices made by the members of the United States Military. But for that reflection to be complete we must also consider what those sacrifices paid for, and why none of them were in vain. This is a military with a rare place in history; it is a military that has bent the moral arc of the world's history towards good.
There are but a handful of armies since time immemorial that stand out as the greatest and most powerful in history. Among them are the Roman Legions, the Muslim Armies of the Middle Ages, the Army of France, founded in the 1420s, and the British Army, founded in 1660. On June 14 the US Army, first force of the American military, will be 245 years old. It can now be spoken of in the same breath as these awe inspiring and word changing militaries.
On at least 5 occasions spanning the American centuries, the American military can be said to have saved the world—or at least to have altered its course in ways that led to greater freedom, liberty and prosperity for people well beyond its borders. Today as we take account of those who secured those victories that changed the world, it is right and just to take time to consider and be thankful for them.
1. The War of 1812
I can see the expression on your face, dear reader, suggesting that you think this to be a stretch. But in fact, these two years of rag tag conflict which saw the White House burned but also the composition of the American national anthem had a profound impact on global affairs and ironically laid the groundwork for two hundred years of growing affection between Britain and its North American offspring.
After the Treaty of Ghent settled the casus belli, North America would never again be the proverbial chessboard for the European imperial powers that it had been for the prior two centuries. Instead, America would slowly come to dominate the region, eventually becoming a world power in its own right. In addition, the alliance with Britain would come to shape the future of global democracy in profound and powerful ways. If the American Revolution was the miracle birth of the United States, the War of 1812 was its stumble into adolescence.
2. The Spanish American War
In 1898, at the dawn of the 20th century the United States would fight a war with Spain to liberate Cuba and the Caribbean, as well as Pacific Islands, from the yoke of Spanish rule. Although the most iconic image of the war is Teddy Roosevelt and the rough riders charging up San Juan Hill, it was in fact American naval power that came to the fore in this conflict.
While the history of the Caribbean and Pacific Island regions in the 20th century is a complicated one, there can be no doubt that this region fared far better than those in North Africa, the Middle East, and the far East that remained under European control. A new kind of empire was established by the Spanish American War: An American empire. This was not an empire of territory but an empire of influence, and ultimately an empire of freedom.
3. World War One
If the conflicts of the 19 century prepared the way for the United States to enter the global stages of power, World War One marked its arrival. A latecomer to the conflict the Yanks went "Over There" in April of 1917 and almost immediately began to move the tide of the deadly stalemate. The Allied powers wished American soldiers to be used here and there in a piecemeal fashion, but General John Pershing would not have it. His army would fight together, as an American force.
After decades of enormous immigration, this was an army represented by descendants of the corners of the world. In addition, 200,000 black soldiers would serve in the expeditionary force. The Harlem Hellfighters of the 369th Infantry Regiment fought to truly great glory. This was the Army of the Melting Pot. My own great grandfather and his brother served. My great-uncle, Philip Marcus, never came back, and found eternal rest beneath a Star of David in the fields of France.
4. World War Two
As the American military prepared to enter World War Two in 1942, it was still a small standing force by the standards of Europe. That was about to change. In the course of two and a half years, an American military would emerge that was to be the strongest the world had ever known, it remains that today. In both Europe and the Pacific, American military power, fueled by the bravery and fortitude of our troops, was decisive. And not only that, in the case of Nazi Germany in particular, it vanquished not just a foe, but and existential evil.
The sacrifices of the Greatest Generation transformed the United States. No longer was it just a nation one could come to and live free, it was a nation that protected freedom across the globe.
5. The Cold War
We tend to think of cold warriors as spies and special agents, but in fact the conventional military presence that the United States had all over the globe played a major role in defeating Soviet communism. Not withstanding the mixed results of the Korean and Vietnamese wars, the raw military might of post World War Two America not only kept the Cold War from going hot, it resulted in ultimate victory in the longest and most vital conflict of the 20th century.
As the keystone of the North American Treaty Alliance, the United States also provided stability to Europe, which with few exceptions has spent 70 years in peace. In the Pacific region the American military and government helped transform a devastated Japan into a world power, and one that embraces freedom and democracy.
And so it stands today. Whatever one thinks of the political choices that led to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American military served admirably in both. For all the talk of the rise of China, there is still no global power that can truly compete with the United States. Much, if not most of that is down to the might of American arms and the steel bravery of the men and women who bear them.
So let the bitter cup of loss and sacrifice be tasted this Memorial Day, let us feel that sadness, but let us also celebrate the victories and historical good done good by our Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard. America is no longer a young nation on the world's stage. We have at least reached a kind of middle age. And in our maturity, it is plain to see that those who serve in our military, are, and will be the backbone of the greatest hope for freedom the world has ever known.