One of the pleasures of being a sports fan has always been the statistics that seem to explain what is happening on the field—and what is likely to happen next. Therefore, we are bombarded with batting averages, free throw percentages, and yards per run—along with a host of ever more arcane permutations of athletic performance—that confer the illusion that we understand the action. Perhaps our illusion of actual knowledge is the reason we are so stunned by the ground ball skipping through Bill Buckner’s legs or, to use a more recent example, the “Minnesota Miracle” last second pass that sent the Vikings on to the NFC Championship game. No matter how hard you squint at the statistics, there is simply no way to predict a bolt of lightning.
However, at least the statistics in sports bear some passing relation to a clear and readily understandable reality. One of the most salient attributes of the numbers endlessly disgorged by both public and private entities to explain our world is that they routinely obfuscate rather than illuminate. Based on some quirky tick upwards or downwards of measurements that have been cooked up via methods few truly comprehend, we are expected to make informed judgements regarding the present or draw reasoned conclusions about what is likely to happen in the future. We presume understandings about the job market, housing, the overall economy, healthcare, the environment, education, politics, public opinion, and many other matters too innumerable to count. And we sail confidently ahead—often right off a cliff.
Perhaps this is why it is amazing that numbers that are both obvious and concerning engender so little interest—or are waved away as somehow not worthy of our interest. The federal deficit. The shrinking number of active workers supporting an exploding number of retirees. The number of people living in our nation who lack legal status to be here. The reading, writing, and math skills (or lack thereof) of American children and adolescents compared to students from other nations. The size and costs of our prison population. The number of American soldiers, sailors, pilots, and marines killed and wounded defending our nation in an increasingly dangerous world. All these statistics and many others are typically totaled up at the bottom of a long yet completely understandable column, which makes them less able to be skewed or distorted by ideological biases—and therefore far less interesting to partisans on either side of any issue.
I’ve been mulling over numbers as I consider President Trump’s proposal for a massive military parade in Washington later this year, which will probably be timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. The number of rants and raves this idea has already produced is remarkable, and the liberal/conservative divergence of opinion is fairly apparent.
Some who are opposed argue a military parade smacks of the kind of grandstanding typical of tin-pot dictatorships and does not befit a great democracy. Some are outraged by the transportation and personnel costs inherent in such an endeavor. Some are even worried that all that heavy, armored equipment is going to tear up the roads in Washington—oh, pity the poor pavement!
I am going to vote for the idea, and my support is based on the numbers for just a few of our more notable wars throughout history, which I present in round figures after looking over several public and private databases.
Revolutionary War: 25,000
World War I: 116,500
World War II: 405,400
Korean War: 54,200
Vietnam War: 58,200
War on Terror: 6,900
These numbers do not account for those wounded in ways both visible and invisible. These totals cannot capture the cumulative loss and despair of so many families and friends left behind. We have no way to measure the cost in sheer human potential caused by each of these deaths.
There will, of course, be those who might belittle these sacrifices. Perhaps they will point out that far more Americans have died from cancer, car accidents, and a basic lack of sanitation over the course of our nation’s history. Churlish commentators are welcome to make such foolish comparisons and advocate for a procession of oncologists, traffic engineers, and sewage plant managers instead of our armed forces. We do, after all, live in a nation where we are free to express our opinions—which is exactly the point I want everyone to remember.
We are free because others died for our country—I cannot put it plainer than that. A few hours of parading and several hours more of traffic jams seem a small enough price to pay in order to honor the loved and lost throughout our nation’s history.
You are, of course, free to disagree with my support for a military parade. That is your right—bought with the blood and pain and horror endured by so many who have died defending our nation. However, I encourage you to consider the numbers—and think about the lives those numbers actually represent—while remembering all those whose names you do not know but who have helped guarantee the freedoms that you enjoy today.
This is one of those times that the numbers do not lie—and are immune from partisan interpretations. It’s time to say thank you and leave the arguments aside for just one day.