It's Memorial Day 2010, and we're entangled in a couple of wars that seem to have no end. But as Harper's Weekly noted in its issue of August 17, 1861, war is pretty much the perpetual state of the human race.
"War is among the oldest historical facts," Harper's editors wrote. "The world has always been fighting more or less. It is the final appeal when ignorant men quarrel or when grave men differ. It is not necessary to hate your enemy, but it may be necessary to kill him. If a man sincerely thinks that he ought to cut your throat, he can not complain if you think with equal sincerity that he ought not."
Harper's published those words less than a month after the First Battle of Bull Run, the first major battle of the Civil War which had been an unmitigated disaster for Union forces.
For 234 years, young men and women have been sent to fight in America's name. Sometimes they've been put in harm's way for reasons that were questionable at best. Other times, they unquestionably preserved our way of life.
But regardless of the reasons, young lives were cut short. So here are some photos of the Americans who have gone off to fight since the Civil War.
The photo above, from the Library of Congress, shows unidentified Confederate soldiers who were captured during the Battle of Gettysburg, which was fought from July 1 to July 3, 1863. More than 600,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died in the Civil War, which provided a horrifying example of the carnage of war in the Industrial Age.
The photo at right, from the website FamilyOldPhotos.com, shows Davis Wilson Wolfcale, a corporal in the Indiana National Guard. Wolfcale was around 21 years old when this photo was made during his service in the Spanish-American War of 1898. That war was touched off by the mysterious explosion of the battleship USS Maine in Havana, Cuba in February 1898.
It was the golden age of Yellow Journalism, and Americans' passions were inflamed by sensationalistic and wildly inaccurate stories published by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, who were locked in a fierce battle for newspaper circulation in New York.
Wolfcale survived that war and died in Michigan on October 13, 1941, about six weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II.
The United States was reluctant to enter World War I, which broke out in Europe in August 1914. Americans were enraged when a German submarine sank the passenger liner Lusitania in 1915. Still, American troops didn't join the Allies fighting Germany until 1917. The fresh American troops turned the tide of the war, and Germany surrendered in 1918.
The above photo, from the website WorldWar1Gallery.com, shows unidentified American soldiers during World War I, which was called the Great War because no one imagined there could be another conflict of the scale of that war. They were wrong, of course.
The United States was still a segregated society when it entered World War II in 1941, but black soldiers and sailors played a vital role in that conflict. This photo shows an African-American soldier working on a truck engine at Fort Knox, Kentucky in June 1942. The photo is from the National Archives and was made by Alfred T. Palmer.
The war that erupted on the Korean peninsula in June 1950 wasn't even given the designation of "war" at first. It was officially referred to as a "police action." But the fighting against Korean and Chinese communist forces was as bloody and deadly as any war the United States was ever involved in. And it was a war of uncertain purpose. When a cease-fire was finally signed in July 1953, Communist forces still occupied North Korea and controlled the North Korean government.
This photo shows an American soldier of the 19th Infantry defending a position in Korea during the grim fighting of July 1950. It's from the website The Korean War, produced by B.L. Kortegaard.
The Viet Nam War was another well-intentioned but confusing effort to stop the spread of communism in Asia. The war provoked a determined anti-war movement in the United States and opened cultural and social fissures that still haven't been closed 35 years after the war ended in 1975.
The above National Geographic photo shows a young American soldier warily relaxing in Viet Nam.
The latest major commitment of American troops reflects some profound changes that have occurred in our society since the end of the Viet Nam War. Women are now serving in combat. This U.S. Army photo shows Specialist Jennie Baez serving in Iraq. American forces have been in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003.
The last photo shows Navy Chief Petty Officer Adam L. Brown of Hot Springs, Arkansas. Brown, a decorated Navy SEAL, was killed a couple of weeks ago in Afghanistan. He left behind a wife and two children. The photo is from the website ArkansasOnline.com.
I have no doubt that the enemy Brown was fighting in Afghanistan means to do us harm and has to be fought. But his death calls to mind another quote from that Harper's Weekly issue of August 17, 1861. The quote is from the 19th-century English poet Walter Savage Landor: "I lament that there are those who can learn no lesson of humanity, unless we write it broadly with the point of the sword."
NOTE: The photo at the top of this post shows the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. It was shot by Myron Davis for Life magazine in 1942,