Commemorations...Sometimes Excessive?

There’s a tendency in this country to overdo it when addressing tragedies such as deaths. The excess is usually enhanced in the death of a young, as opposed to an older person, though the “young” identification can be quite high, often with the attached circumstance of the survivors – young children or a large family, for example, or the excess may involve victims dying through abnormal circumstances such as on 9/11 or in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

The disagreements connected with planning and constructing a “proper” monument/memorial for the 9/11 victims, or the Oklahoma City victims of 1995, or the 49 victims of a plane crash in Lexington, Ky., in 2006, not to mention the expense, can make memorials something of a hassle, though those who die in the line of duty deserve recognition. The word “hero” is overworked and seems to include anyone who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, not just those who voluntarily placed themselves in harm’s way and lost their lives.

On average, about the same number of American GIs as the 343 NYC fireman on 9/11were killed or died during every ten-day period in the 4.5 years of actual combat during WWI and WWII, nearly 522,000 or about 319 per day. During the Civil War, 427 Americans died per day (623,026 in a population of only 35 million, nearly 2%) through both battle and disease. By comparison, less than two GIs per day have died in the Afghan/Iraqi conflicts over the last ten years. It took 60 years for a WWII memorial to be built on the mall in Washington, but only ten regarding 9/11 in New York City. Strangely, there are memorials on the National Mall in Washington for the Korean and Vietnam veterans but none for those of WWI, though there were more than 21,000 more WWI deaths than in the other two combined.

The capriciousness is remarkable vis-à-vis the establishing of memorials. Compare the elaborate and costly WTC memorial to the very plain Pearl Harbor memorial (USS Arizona) dedicated to nearly the same number of dead to get an idea of zaniness. The former involved mostly civilians simply at work, the latter mostly military (2,335 American GIs voluntarily serving in harm’s way and only 68 civilians).

State, local and the federal governments paid $15.8 billion to survivors of the 9/11 victims, or 42 percent of the total, with an average of $3.1 million per recipient, according to the Rand Corporation, January 2005. By contrast, about all the survivors of the victims in the Oklahoma City bombing received was a two-year reprieve on income taxes. Amazing! This is not to say the government had no responsibility in either case. It is simply to point out the apparent excesses. The mourners of 9/11 became instant millionaires, largely due to taxpayers, but not the mourners in Oklahoma City, or concerning the USS Cole or any battlefield in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Breaking precedent this year, a memorial to a civilian, Martin Luther King, Jr., rather than to military or other government personnel, was established among its four-acre compound on the National Mall. The inordinate excess is seen in its three-story figure of King, far taller than even Lincoln and dwarfing all other individuals honored there. It’s more like a huge stern Buddha with crossed arms staring down at the actual military heroes memorialized, not surprising since it was designed by a Chinese citizen and sculpted by him in China, then merely shipped to this country and put together by Chinese laborers. Exponential excess added to exponential insult!

Perhaps a difference concerning excess can be seen in the difference between the interminable, religiously-sanitized ceremonies in NYC and the service at the Pentagon on Sunday. There were no non-singers with guitars in Washington, for instance. The service was clearly Christian, complete with prayers and hymns played by the Marine Corps band and sung by the Navy Choir. It was terribly moving. The National Anthem, for instance, was sung by a Navy singer with a trained voice performing the anthem as precisely written, not by some celebrity singer attempting to improve it but only butchering and making a mockery of it. The performance of Battle Hymn of the Republic was magnificent. The essentially non-melodramatic speeches by Joint-Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mullen, CIA Director Panetta and Vice President Biden were appropriately poignant but brief and right on the mark.

The current generation, geared to excess and self-preservation, seems to have a hard time confronting death or even in getting things in perspective. It was not always so.