Remembering the New Yorkers Who Served

For New Yorkers in uniform, death these days has mercifully been absent with leave.

The Day

Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.

The welcome news on this Memorial Day weekend was that no serviceman or woman from the five boroughs had been killed this year in the United States’ remaining combat zone, Afghanistan. Since Memorial Day a year ago, there have been “only” two deaths of city residents.

“Only” is sandwiched between quotation marks for obvious reasons. There is no such thing as “only” for the families of those most recently lost to war: Marine Lance Cpl. Jabari Thompson of Brooklyn and Pvt. Danny Chen of Manhattan.

On Monday, during ceremonies at the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Riverside Park, their names were read aloud by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg as he noted that 91 New Yorkers had been killed in America’s decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Understandably, the mayor did not go into details of the latest deaths. It was hardly the occasion for that.

Corporal Thompson, 22, stepped on a roadside bomb — an improvised explosive device, in military jargon — while on patrol last July in Afghanistan. Private Chen, 19, the son of Chinese immigrants, is believed to have killed himself in Afghanistan last October after enduring vicious hazing by soldiers in his battalion. Eight of them have since been charged criminally in connection with his death.

This was hardly material for an ennobling Memorial Day tale of sacrifice and devotion to duty.

From purely a statistical analysis, one could argue that New York City, battered so fiercely on 9/11, has fared better than the rest of the country in the wars that followed that monstrous attack in 2001. It has 2.7 percent of the American population but “only” 1.4 percent of the 6,471 American deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, as recorded by iCasualties.org, a Web site that keeps close track of the fallen.

Once again, “only” must be in quotation marks. Figures of this sort surely mean nothing to the families of the 87 men and 4 women from the city who were killed in these wars.

Someday, a major New York monument to them may rise, comparable perhaps to the haunting Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the financial district. This sort of thing takes time, especially with unpopular wars of seemingly endless duration.

“There’s usually a lag of 10 or 12 years,” said Cal Snyder, who wrote a book on such tributes, “Out of Fire and Valor: The War Memorials of New York City From the Revolution to 9-11” (Bunker Hill Publishing, 2005). In the meantime, Mr. Snyder said, “there’s an enormous Web memorial presence.”

“I think the Web is going to be increasingly important for this, as it is for everything else,” he said.

Ceremonies of remembrance, while essential, unintentionally reinforce the widening gap between those in uniform and the rest of society. It’s a chasm, really.

“We are placing a disproportionate burden on a shrinking number of volunteers,” Representative Charles B. Rangel of Manhattan wrote in an opinion article on Monday in The Daily News. Mr. Rangel may have his ethical and political troubles. But as a Korean War veteran, wounded in battle, he knows combat, and he is a rare voice in favor of compulsory national service to distribute the weight of war more fairly, so that those from the ranks of the unprivileged are not virtually alone in paying the steepest price.

Not that military conscription is about to make a comeback. The chasm is likely to remain intact.

It is reflected strikingly in our political leadership, at all levels.

Two decades have passed since New York had a mayor who was in the military, David N. Dinkins, and three decades since the state had a governor with such a background, Hugh L. Carey.

More significantly, when it comes to choosing a national leader, Americans may pay ceremonial tribute to those who fight our battles, but voting for them is another matter. In each of the last five presidential elections, the candidate who had never served, or who had figured out how to keep himself far from harm’s way, defeated a candidate who had gone to war. This year, for the first time since World War II, neither major party will nominate a presidential candidate who is a veteran.

So it is certain that a relatively small cadre of volunteers will keep bearing the burden. The best that the New Yorkers among them can hope is that death continues to take an extended holiday.


E-mail Clyde Haberman: [email protected]

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