Memorial Day is at hand, that special day in May when many of us journey to the community cemetery for services. We gather to hear speeches and prayers commemorating our loved ones and friends who had served their country so faithfully.

Winston Churchill famously said, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few" when talking about the Royal Air Force fighting the German Luftwaffe in World War II. The same could be said for all those now lying beneath the flickering flags.

Special tribute should be paid, however, to a small, elite group of fallen heroes — those who died in combat. While millions of us have served in the military over the years, a tiny number of our comrades — far less than 1 percent — made the ultimate sacrifice in combat, allowing the rest of us to carry on with our lives.

This reality is even more stark when put into numbers. In all of the 20th century, and so far in the 21st, we have lost something over 600,000 men and women in combat. The vast bulk of those deaths occurred in the "good wars" (if there is such a thing), World War I and World War II. Then there were the so-called "bad wars" — or, at best, dubious wars — like Vietnam and Korea, that led to most of the rest of the deaths. That leaves the unlabeled but questionable conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the longest wars in our country's history — and still going — as well as our many "police actions" around the world taking the lives of the final several thousand souls.

Think about that: A number of people roughly equal to the combined population of Minneapolis and St. Paul bore the burden of all the deaths in combat in all our modern wars.

In light of their sacrifice, the easiest thing in the world for the rest of us to do is go to a cemetery once a year on a quiet, sad day, say some prayers, sing some songs and lay flowers on the graves of loved ones. The more appropriate but much more difficult thing is to understand why those loved ones repose there in the first place.

Our first, and most sober duty should be to remember that they lie there because our government decided that they should fight and die for their country. No, that's not exactly right. They are there because we the people decided they should fight and die for us.

It won't make their sacrifice any less painful, but when put that way perhaps we can assume some small share of the burden.

Countries have asked — demanded? — for thousands of years that their young people fight and die. There's no reason to believe that will change anytime soon. For their sake, then, remember to choose wisely when you send your sons and daughters off to war; be sure it is a cause for which you would die.

There's a little boy standing by the fence with a flag in his hand

He's sad and confused; he doesn't understand.

He watches his daddy turn and head up on the bus.

He watches him go and doesn't make a fuss.

"Why does it have to be my daddy?" he thinks to himself.

Then he thinks back to the pictures on the shelf

Of his daddy dressed in a suit with white cap,

But he doesn't know why daddy's going to Iraq.


Rest in peace, comrades, your watch has ended.

D. Roger Pederson, of Minneapolis, is a retired military officer and Vietnam veteran.