The average age of an American serviceman killed in Vietnam was 23 years old. In Iraq, it was 27. The average American lives to be about 80. The data for other conflicts vary slightly. But it’s pretty much the same story. The cost of a fallen solider is a little over 50 years of a human life.
50 years is a hell of a long time. Imagine if you were born in 1897. You would have reached the critical age when you were most at risk to be killed in action as America entered WWI. If you weren’t one of the 116,000 or so that we lost there, you would have been born into a world where the nights were lit only by fire and trained animals carried you from point A to point B. Before you passed, you would have lived to see a man walk on the moon. Your life would have witnessed the invention of the automobile, a world covered in paved concrete highways, manned flight, space travel and nuclear energy. Or you would have been buried in a field in France before any of it.
That’s the potential that lives in fifty years of a human life.
If you’re reading this now, then chances are you’ve hit the great cosmic jackpot and been born in America in the latter half of the twentieth century, or maybe even the first half of the twenty first. And you would have been born into the most forgiving society man has ever known. We are afforded nearly endless chances to make mistakes. We can fail at school and someone has to let us back in. We can lose our jobs and we can be supported and feed our family until we find a new one. We can commit atrocious crimes and we may lose our freedom, but we’ll be fed and clothed and protected the rest of our lives.
None of this is bad. It’s merely a contrast.
Because there is one part of us that remains as unforgiving as ever. And that’s the ultimate sacrifice of war. If you’ve never watched a sobbing mother throw herself onto a flag draped coffin or a boy choking back the tears as his father’s teammate hands him that triangular harbinger of a life with a father sized hole in it, then perhaps you’ve never felt the horrible unfairness of the permanent cost of war, delivered in wasteful increments of 50 years of human life gone.
Every one of those stones in Arlington is more than a singular event in time. They are more than a death or a tragedy. Each one is an interruption in the human fabric. They represent a line that ended before its time.
The thoughts of honor and heroism help. But none of it will ever make up for what may have been.
The world is full of disappointing people. Certainly some that gave their lives for the cause would have turned out to be, had they been given their due time. But many, like the heroes I served with were not. When I think what any of them, or the countless like them that fell, could have done with 50 years more of life lived, it shakes me. If given 50 years more in the problem of man, what feats they would have accomplished to solve it; what disease they would have cured; what technology they would have invented; what industry they would have changed.
What father’s they would have been.
So have your barbecues today. Drink some beer. If any of the brothers I lost were here, they’d be buying the first round. I promise. Don’t feel guilty. But if you can, take a minute to ask yourself the question I’ve come to ask myself as often as I can.
What are you doing with your 50?