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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Memorial Day reminds that freedom isn’t free

The Columbian
Published: May 29, 2023, 6:03am

Although America’s wars have been fought far from the Northwest, one needn’t travel far to appreciate the solemnity of today.

The Clark County Veterans War Memorial at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site includes hundreds of names of those who have perished defending our nation. They range from the Spanish American War to the recent Global War on Terrorism, representing heroes who have provided us with the freedoms we enjoy today.

It is those heroes and those freedoms we recognize with the national holiday of Memorial Day. In contrast to Veterans Day, which is set aside in November to honor all who have served in the armed forces, Memorial Day acknowledges those who have died in that service.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 650,000 Americans have been killed in battle, dating back to the American Revolution. Another 300,000 service members have died in noncombat incidents in the theater of war. While a majority of those casualties have come in long-ago wars that helped build the United States into a global power, nearly 2,500 deaths occurred during this century’s conflict in Afghanistan.

As demonstrated by the Clark County Veterans War Memorial, that toll touches every crevice of the United States. Communities big and small have felt the loss that accompanies war, erecting their own monuments as tribute.

The local memorial was dedicated in 1998, supplanting an earlier iteration that had been built in 1945 at the Clark County Courthouse. According to the Historical Marker Database: “Several years ago it was discovered that names were missing from that memorial. Because of the smaller size, age and handicap inaccessibility of the original memorial, it was thought a new memorial might be in order.”

That continues an American tradition that grew out of the Civil War. It is incongruous that many Memorial Day traditions began in the former Confederate states, where those who fought against the United States were honored. But those traditions have spread into a national day of remembrance in which all Americans can partake.

As President Abraham Lincoln implored during the Gettysburg Address while dedicating a cemetery for Civil War dead: “It is for us the living … to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”

At a time when this nation is particularly polarized along political lines, Memorial Day takes on added meaning. Many have died defending our right to embrace the freedoms afforded by the United States — our right to squabble among ourselves and our right to disagree about beliefs important and trivial.

While we can disagree at times about the morality of war, such disagreements should not reflect upon military members themselves; they are men and women who have answered the call from a nation in which they believe. As an old saying goes, we are the home of the free because of the brave. And throughout our history, most of those brave have been volunteers.

Today, there are about 1.3 million active personnel, carrying on a tradition of service that predates even the founding of the nation.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 41 million Americans have served in the armed forces throughout the United States’ history. A day to remember those who did not return home is a cause for solemn reflection.