Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Honoring the Band of Brothers: Take a moment before you fire up that grill

Below is a Memorial Day commentary from my CNAS colleague, retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno. If that isn’t enough for you, here are two other good commentaries on this day — Rye Barcott’s in the Washington Post, and Lt. Col. Robert Bateman’s in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.    By David Barno Best Defense chief ...

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Below is a Memorial Day commentary from my CNAS colleague, retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno. If that isn't enough for you, here are two other good commentaries on this day -- Rye Barcott's in the Washington Post, and Lt. Col. Robert Bateman's in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.   

By David Barno
Best Defense chief Army correspondent

This is the tenth Memorial Day since the fall of the Twin Towers and attack on the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 -- a 21st century Pearl Harbor. But if the 1941 Japanese surprise attack was a shock that would turn the lives of an entire generation of Americans upside down, the aftermath of the 9/11 assaults has really affected only about one percent of our population -- the "Band of Brothers" who have served in camouflage and khaki in the days since. While we are enjoying our barbecues this weekend, these men and women are standing watch in Afghanistan, Iraq and a hundred other dust spots around the world.  

Below is a Memorial Day commentary from my CNAS colleague, retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno. If that isn’t enough for you, here are two other good commentaries on this day — Rye Barcott’s in the Washington Post, and Lt. Col. Robert Bateman’s in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.   

By David Barno
Best Defense chief Army correspondent

This is the tenth Memorial Day since the fall of the Twin Towers and attack on the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 — a 21st century Pearl Harbor. But if the 1941 Japanese surprise attack was a shock that would turn the lives of an entire generation of Americans upside down, the aftermath of the 9/11 assaults has really affected only about one percent of our population — the “Band of Brothers” who have served in camouflage and khaki in the days since. While we are enjoying our barbecues this weekend, these men and women are standing watch in Afghanistan, Iraq and a hundred other dust spots around the world.  

On September 11, 2001, nearly 3,000 Americans lost their lives in the most deadly  surprise attack ever on American soil. Unlike the 1941-era response, this time our  nation did not mobilize a huge army and navy, authorize conscription, nor even call on ordinary Americans to make small sacrifices to build shared equity in the U.S. response. In many ways, there was no need — we had a highly capable all-volunteer military, and it proved adaptive enough to topple the Taliban in a few months, and overthrow Saddam Hussein a year later. But since 9/11, this remarkable force of volunteers has sustained over 6,000 fatalities — mostly very young men and women killed in grinding combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Over 40,000 have been wounded, many grievously. None of this Band of Brothers or their families has been untouched by their wartime experiences. But in truth, the remaining 99 percent of us have been fundamentally unscathed — and often, entirely uninvolved.

This weekend, millions of Americans will embark upon holiday picnics and family outings, enjoying the three-day break that traditionally marks the start of summer. It is by now almost a cliché to note that no more than a few Americans will remember those who have died fighting half way around the world since 9/11, much less the dead of previous wars.  Many will fail to even recognize why we actually have a long holiday weekend at the end of May every year. Yet Memorial Day exists for one sole purpose: to remember our fallen Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors and Marines. Yet even for those who do remember, the fallen seem to be faded memories from wars long past, graying photos of a different era.    

Not me. For me, it’s personal. I remember the dead from this Band of Brothers. Their faces and their names, the lives of real people with sons and daughters, adoring parents, fiancées and futures, all crushed out by abrupt, often random death in war. Some I served with, others were youngsters I watched grow up with my kids on Army bases, still others adult friends of my own children now in uniform.

Bill, a battalion commander in Iraq killed by a roadside explosive as he leapt out of his vehicle to check on his wounded men. He left a wife and teenage daughter at home. Dan, a Special Forces team leader, blown up with three of his men as they hunted Taliban in southern Afghanistan; his wife still serves in uniform while raising their two young boys. Mike, an air cavalry squadron commander just decorated by me for bravery, killed in an air crash with three of his men, who left behind a wife and three children. Laura, a young West Point engineer who grew up alongside my kids, killed by a roadside bomb in Oruzgan province. There are many, many others, unknown to America but deeply etched forever on the lives of those with whom they served and in the hearts of their families at home. Their stories, their lives, their lost talents will be marked by empty chairs at birthdays and holidays for a lifetime.  War is not abstract for these families, nor for those of us who knew them, loved them, and continue to have our own flesh and blood in this fight.

To salute this generation’s Band of Brothers on Memorial Day, do two things: visit a veteran’s cemetery or hometown war memorial and put some flowers there – and explain to your kids why you are doing it.  And sit down and write a letter to say thanks to a deployed soldier, or to their spouse back home – including your name, a photo, and your e-mail so he or she can connect back. Get to personally know just one of them or their family during their deployment.  Find a way to get involved to help support them – more than by just putting a magnet sticker on your car. Ask around your office or neighborhood, and you will be surprised to find parents and siblings of troops able to help you get connected with a soldier. If that’s too hard, take a look at helping veterans of this conflict who are no longer in uniform, or the survivors of those killed.  Goldstarwives.org can connect you to widows and IAVA.org can link you into current veterans.

This Memorial Day, do something to remember this Band of Brothers who have been carrying our nation’s load for ten years.  And if you are going to really honor them, you actually need to get to know at least one.  Think about that before you fire up the grill this weekend.  

Retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno commanded a Ranger battalion from 1993-1994, and a battalion ops officer for 2/75 for 500 ft night parachute assault into Panama in 1989, and commanded U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan in 2003-2005. He is now a senior fellow at good old CNAS.  

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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