By Tom Purcell
Every year, polls show that a large number of Americans don't know why we celebrate Memorial Day.
According to People, a 2020 Onepoll survey found that fewer than half of the 2,000 people surveyed knew that the purpose of Memorial Day was not to honor those who served in the armed forces, but to honor those who gave their lives while they served.
Few Americans are aware that the original reason for Memorial Day dates back to the Civil War.
Originally called Decoration Day, its purpose was to remember the nearly 500,000 soldiers who died during that incredibly bloody conflict.
That large number becomes especially sobering when you realize that the Civil War claimed roughly half of the 1.1 million service members who gave their lives in all of our conflicts, according to the Department of Veteran Affairs and the Department of Defense.
Consider the cost of our other wars:
The American Revolution was a hard-fought battle, but our successful fight for freedom claimed fewer than 1% of the lives of service members than the Civil War claimed -- about 6,800 lives.
World War I -- the "war to end all wars" -- took 120,000 American service members. Regrettably, a lot more war was yet to come.
World War II -- what many veterans of the great global conflict called "the Big One" -- claimed approximately 405,000 U.S. service members, mostly young people whose lives were just beginning to blossom.
The Korean War, in which my father served, claimed 34,000 U.S. service members -- and it's still not officially over.
The Vietnam War claimed 48,000 U.S. service members -- again mostly claiming young lives. The pain and loss of that terrible war lingers for millions of families still.
The long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq cost the lives of nearly 7,000 service members.
It's a number that would have been higher if not for considerable gains in medical technology that resulted in fewer battlefield deaths.
However, more than 52,000 U.S. service members were wounded in these conflicts and many are still suffering from both physical and mental disabilities -- and higher than normal suicide rates.
We must never forget those who gave their lives serving the rest of us. But too many of us are forgetting to do just that.
PBS News Hour offers a partial explanation as to why.
During the Civil War, almost every American family suffered loss. The 500,000 Union and Confederate deaths accounted for about 2% to 2.5% of the total population.
During World War II, according to Census Bureau and Department of Defense data, about 12 percent of the total U.S. population were members of the armed forces -- and everyone else at home was making sacrifices to support the war effort.
Today, however, fewer than 1% of our population serves or has served, which makes it easier for most of us to remain aloof from military actions.
But we should be aware. War really is hell and it should be the absolute last resort for our nation to take.
We must hold our political leaders to account and stop them from so willingly getting us into new conflicts that will result in more service members giving the ultimate sacrifice.
So before we focus on our Memorial Day weekend parades and picnics, we must remember to honor those who have given their lives for our country.
And we must never forget the true meaning of Memorial Day.
Purcell, creator of the infotainment site ThurbersTail.com, which features pet advice he's learning from his beloved Labrador, Thurber, is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist. Email him at [email protected].