Memorial Day is a day to honor those who have served our nation in its times of greatest need, and particularly those who died in that service.
Until WW-II, in every war, the number of soldiers who died of disease and infection greatly exceeded the number killed in battle. In the four years of the Korean “Police Action,” the U.S. suffered 33,686 combat deaths. Between 1955 and 1975, the U.S. suffered 58,220 combat deaths in Vietnam. In these wars, more soldiers died in battle than in hospitals.
That change reflects the work and sacrifice of people more concerned with saving lives than with “taking ground.” People risked their safety and their lives to save lives, to solve problems with diseases that grew from wars, and decimated armies.
This month marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, who revolutionized battlefield care for wounded soldiers in the Crimean War. Nightingale trained nurses, and in 1860, after the war she founded the world’s first secular nursing school - a school which continues training nurses today. Nightingale’s main contributions to keeping soldiers alive and healing in war hospitals was to introduce basic sanitation and decent nutrition.
Traditionally, generals and admirals have little concern for the wounded. A soldier unable to fight is useless to an army, and the army has no interest in feeding or housing such men. Florence Nightingale took her own “army” of nurses into fetid spaces full of disease and infection, solely to help others get well. For a nation at war, her efforts returned men to the ranks and then to their families. She served her nation in its hours of need, and deserves no less remembrance on a day set aside to honor those who fight.
Walter Reed was born three years before Florence Nightingale went to the Crimean War. Decades later, he was still trying to convince the U.S. Army that sanitation and nutrition were key to keeping soldiers healthy, or to healing them after injury. As an Army doctor, committed to saving soldiers lives instead of sending them out to die, Walter Reed was never promoted beyond Major. But he did succeed in saving the lives of thousands of soldiers stationed in colonial Cuba, and in establishing the bases for our current knowledge of typhus and yellow fever.
The Army has named a variety of medical facilities in honor of Walter Reed, and the popular media and history folks have credited him with discovering the critical mosquito transmission pathway for yellow fever. But unlike some current commanders, Walter Reed was unwilling to take credit for the work of others. He maintained, until the end of his life, that the work he did on mosquito vectors was all based on earlier work by Cuban doctor Carlos Finlay.
Walter Reed worked as an Army doctor in campaigns to “civilize” the American West, and then treated the troops used to prop up the first banana republics of U.S. early colonialism in Latin America. But he worked to serve our nation, and to keep U.S. soldiers from dying unnecessarily in hostile environments. He deserves no less honor than the men who’s lives he worked to save.
Walter Reed worked to serve our nation, and to keep U.S. soldiers from dying unnecessarily in hostile environments. He deserves no less honor than the men who’s lives he worked to save.
In 1914, the British Religious Society of Friends, which are commonly referred to as “Quakers,” formed the Friends Ambulance Unit. This unit sent ambulances and pacifist volunteers onto the killing fields of WW-I, to rescue and care for the wounded, both civilian and military. Disbanded after WW-I, the Friends Ambulance Unit was reformed in 1939 as WW-II broke out. FAU teams were sent to war zones around the world. It is estimated that 80% of the medical supplies sent into Japanese-occupied China were handled by FAU teams.
The members of the Friends Ambulance Unit, in WW-I and WW-II did not carry weapons. They didn’t kill. They saved lives, the lives of those trying to kill. They deserve honor on a day devoted to honoring those who participated in wars, with weapons or without.
During the Vietnam War, civilians went into the jungles and established field hospitals. Doctors worked on those who needed care, without asking whether or for which side the injured aligned. They didn’t ask for fame or even publicity. They simply went to work saving lives.
My uncle served in submarines during WW-II. He was in the business of trying to kill those who were trying to kill him. After the war, he went to college and medical school on the G.I. Bill, then worked as a doctor treating students at the Harvard College Medical Service. During summers while school was on break, he went to Vietnam to work in jungle field hospitals, crafting prostheses for victims of the thousands of tons of bombs being dropped. Should he be honored for the killing he did in a submarine any more than for the lives he saved, in a decades later war?
In recent years, science fiction stories have come true. Just as clubs gave way to bows and arrows, and bows and arrows gave way to firearms, war is now transitioning from firearms to cyber- and bio-warfare. In 1763, Jeffery Amherst, commander of all forces in colonial North America, wrote to Colonel Henry Bouquet:
"P.S. You will Do well to try to Innoculate [sic] the Indians by means of Blankets, as well as to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race. I should be very glad your Scheme for Hunting them Down by Dogs could take Effect.”
The effect was devastation of Native Americans, civilians as well as warriors, by smallpox.
In WW-I, the use of poison gas created crowded hospitals and aid stations that were natural breeding grounds for what was called the “Spanish Flu,” although some epidemiologists now recognize that that disease first arose in Kansas. If we believe the Donald and other opportunistic alt-whities, the current coronavirus pandemic is a bio-warfare weapon.
So when thinking of those who have served our nation in its times of greatest need, and particularly those who died in that service, we have no soldiers shooting tiny bullets at tiny viruses. But we do have doctors and nurses and orderlies, and hospital food service workers, and all of the Hispanic women who labor invisibly to clean the dirty dishes and the contaminated, soiled bedding, and to wash the scrubs.
As we will cross over the 100,000 deaths mark on Memorial Day (if we haven’t already), can a modern world deny that the ambulance drivers, and Costco workers and undocumented laborers in meat and poultry plants are any less important to our society, and any less heroic for going to work than those who daily walk into quarantine wards?
I see nothing heroic in some for-profit preacher clamoring for his church to reopen so that people can drop money into his collection plate before they drop family members and friends at the morgue. But those who try to keep even irresponsible churchgoers alive, by treating them for an illness they voluntarily encountered, or by processing, delivering and selling the food to keep them alive, at great personal risk, are heroic.
In the first five months of 2020, the U.S. has suffered at least 100,000 deaths in the struggle against Covid-19. More than the total of all combat deaths in combined Korean “Police Action” and Vietnam War. We don’t yet know how many of these deaths are deaths of front-line workers, directly treating patients with the disease or stocking shelves, and ringing registers to keep our society functioning.
But in a new age, when climate change drives the release of new/ancient diseases from the permafrost, or creates conditions that foster the spread of new pandemics, it is not the soldiers, eager to kill, but those who work to save lives, those who walk in the footsteps of Florence Nightingale, Walter Reed, the FAU and yes, of my uncle Bill, who now are more important than those who only serve by killing. They do more for our society, our nation, in a time of great need. And those who serve, whether they die or not, deserve to be celebrated on a day set aside to honor those who serve.