The first observance of what came to be known as Memorial Day was on May 30, 1868, when a Civil War general called on Americans to commemorate the sacrifices of Union soldiers. It was initially called Decoration Day, for the practice of decorating graves with wreaths and flags. And there were so many graves — more than 300,000 men had died on the Union side, and nearly as many for the Confederacy. In total, more died on both sides of the Civil War than in every other US conflict through the Korean War, combined.
It wasn’t long, though, before remembrance began to be overshadowed by celebration. Within a year, the New York Times opined the holiday would no longer be “sacred” if parades and speeches became more central than the act of memorializing the dead. Which is precisely what happened, especially after Congress in 1971 fixed Memorial Day as the last Monday in May, making it the perfect launchpad for summer, with an increasingly perfunctory nod to the holiday’s original purpose.
The gap between those for whom Memorial Day is a moment of remembrance versus three days of hot dogs and hamburgers will likely only grow in the future, as veterans of previous wars pass away and the divide between America’s all-volunteer military and its civilians deepens. Fewer than 1 percent of the US adult population serves in the military, and those still signing up increasingly come from a small handful of regions and families with a history of military service. (You can include my own family in that ever rarer number: My brother is a retired Army captain who served in Iraq.)
With an ever-inflating defense budget — now north of $800 billion — the footprint of the US military is hardly shrinking, but the number of those who will potentially be called on to give what Lincoln called the “last full measure of devotion” is.
Yet there’s a greater gap embedded in Memorial Day: It’s between those who died as warfighters (to use one of the Pentagon’s terms), and the far greater number around the world who have died as war’s victims.
When civilians die in war
The past is not just a foreign country to us, but a bloody one. From the interpersonal to the international, conflict was a constant throughout much of human history. Between 1500 and 1800, there was hardly a year when great powers weren’t enmeshed in some kind of war.
Though war became somewhat less common as we entered the 1900s, it did not become less deadly. Far from it — while the death toll of war in the past was more chiefly concentrated among combatants, the 20th century saw the awful blossoming of total war, where little to no distinction was made between those fighting the war and the civilians on the sidelines, and new weapons enabled mass, indiscriminate killing.
Go back to the Civil War, which sits at the junction between battle as it had long been practiced and the greater horror it would become. Over 600,000 soldiers were killed in the conflict, against at least 50,000 civilians, ranging from those killed directly to the many who died in the wake of war, from starvation and disease.
That number was terrible, yet in the wars to come, it would only grow.
In the First World War, a roughly equal number of combatants and civilians were killed globally — approximately 10 million on each side. In the Second World War, more combatants were killed than in any other conflict in human history, a toll nearing 15 million. Yet for every soldier, sailor, or airman who was killed, nearly one and a half civilians would die, totaling, by one count, almost 40 million.
The last of the dead would come in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when as many as 210,000 people — nearly all of them Japanese civilians — died in the first and so far only atomic bombings. Not only were these new weapons capable of murdering at a vastly larger scale than ever before, but they existed chiefly to threaten the lives of noncombatants.
Thankfully, given the weapons militaries now had at their disposal, World War II was the high mark for war deaths. In the decades that followed, deaths in battle for both combatants and civilians sharply declined, minus the occasional spike in conflicts like the Korean and Vietnam Wars. People around the world today are far, far less likely to die in war than their ancestors, which is one of the most undeniable — if tenuous — markers of our species’ under-appreciated progress.
Yet even in this era of comparative peace, civilians still bear the brunt of war when it comes, including when it is fought by the United States. According to Brown University’s Costs of War project, more civilians were likely directly killed in post-9/11 conflicts than fighters on either side — and when the number of indirect deaths from starvation and destruction are included, that gulf only widens.
In Ukraine, according to one source, more than twice as many Ukrainian civilians as soldiers have been killed in the war. On the morning after Memorial Day, Ukrainian drones struck civilian areas of Moscow, on the heels of yet another Russian bombardment of Kyiv. “These attacks are very exhausting because we do not sleep at night,” one 32-year-old Ukrainian mother of two told the New York Times. “Even if I fall asleep, I have nightmares.”
A new kind of Memorial Day
The US has its Memorial Day to honor fallen soldiers, while other countries have their Remembrance Day, their Victory Day. Yet there are only a handful of monuments to honor the countlessly greater number of civilians killed in war.
It’s not hard to imagine why. As the shift in perception around the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has shown — from unpatriotic atrocity to a celebrated work of national mourning — we can honor the sacrifice of service members who died in a war, even if we don’t believe in the war. But the death of those who died without a rifle in hand, who died in childhood and infancy, who died because they could not fight and could not be protected, shows war for what it ultimately is: a waste. And we can’t begin to know how to mark the unmarked.
America has been a historical exception in many ways, but perhaps no more so than that its civilian citizens have largely escaped the scourge of war. (Though the same, of course, can hardly be said for its Indigenous populations, so long treated as enemy combatants in their own land.) Americans have fought and Americans have died, but at an ever-increasing remove, a distance that grows with each Memorial Day.
The general decline of war is one of our great accomplishments as humans, something to be unequivocally celebrated. Perhaps we would feel that more if we gave the deaths of civilians the same honor as that of soldiers — a new kind of Memorial Day that can begin here.
A version of this story was initially published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!