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ECONOMIC ANALYSIS: How an economist pays tribute on Memorial Day

May 26, 2008

Memorial Day held great significance for me when a youngster growing up in the 1960s. Like many families, mine had paid a dear price over the preceding century, and memories of those contributions lingered over even those of us too young to really understand. World War I veterans were still spry, and the World War II veterans were in the fullness of their years. To your future columnist, they were all old men. Still, Memorial Day had meaning beyond the barbecues, time with families and the promise of a long school-less summer.

As I grew older, the specter of Vietnam and a changing mood lessened the day. Useful recollection was a casualty of that war, too.

By the time I reached manhood and embraced a military career, the significance changed yet again. The faces I remembered on the Memorial Day of my youth were of old men. By the time I was a 26-year-old infantry captain, the faces of those I memorialized were of my own generation. My view of Memorial Day became not a yellowed vision of old veterans gathering to remember, but of still youthful friends now gone.

Now, I'm an economics professor in early middle age, and my memory and view have changed again. When I consider the sacrifice of war, it is no longer the experience of loss on the battlefield, but in the forfeit of what comes after. The cost of war is not death on the battlefield but rather of the surrender of the days that come after.

On this last weekend in May, we will memorialize men and women newly gone from us. For many of us, part of the tribute will involve ritual, the playing of taps, and a reading of names. There also will be some lamentable politics. All wars yield less good than anyone expects, no matter how purposeful the original cause. When we remember the sacrifice of war, we should put in context what those who died gave up as they pursued something they hoped would be greater than themselves.

A young soldier killed in battle has given up about 20,000 days of life. This is 20,000 sunrises and sunsets and 60,000 meals with friends and families. Those who died did not live to earn the roughly $1.2 million an average American would earn over a lifetime. Most will have given up holding their newborn children, watching those children's first steps and seeing them off to school. They also will have missed the tough times that add sweetness to the happy moments.

The ripples of sorrow are long for families, and the loss of youthful vigor damaging to our economy in its broadest sense. Indiana lost some 12,000 men in World War II. The grandchildren they did not have would be enough to fill the entire student bodies of Ball State, Indiana and Purdue universities.

On this Memorial Day, it is well to remember those who died. But it also might be useful to savor those things they traded for our futures.



Hicks is director of the Bureau of Business Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbr@bsu.edu.
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