By Niall Stanage - 05/27/13 04:41 PM EDT
President Obama said that the United States was turning “a page on a decade of conflict” as he delivered a Memorial Day address at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington on Monday.
Obama noted the drawing down of U.S. forces underway in Afghanistan and said that next year’s holiday would mark the final Memorial Day of the war.
But, Obama continued, “let us never forget, as we gather here today, that our nation is still at war. It should be self-evident, and in generations past, it was.”
The president compared past conflicts including the Vietnam War and the Second World War, in which his grandfather Stanley Dunham fought, with today. In earlier struggles, he said, almost every American knew someone directly involved.
“Today, most Americans are not directly touched by war. As a consequence, not all Americans may always see or fully grasp the depths of sacrifice.”
Obama’s remarks at Arlington came amid controversy over sexual assaults and harassment in the military, and as the Pentagon grapples with policy shifts and budget cuts.
A recent Pentagon study found that cases of unwanted sexual contact across the branches of the military rose 37 percent in 2012 to about 26,000 cases. Speaking to graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., Friday, Obama warned that the involvement of some military personnel in sexual assaults threatens “the trust and discipline which makes our military strong.”
Earlier last week, Obama addressed national security policy, giving a lengthy speech in which he defended the use of drone strikes against suspected terrorists in certain circumstances. He also said that the ‘war on terror’ must end and that the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should be closed.
As is customary, he steered away from contentious subject matter in his Arlington speech.
Obama asserted that the sacrifices made by servicemen and servicewomen put an onus on leaders to “give our troops the resources they need.”
He added, “On a more basic level, every American can do something even simple. As we go about our daily lives, we must remember that our countrymen are still serving, still fighting, still putting their lives on the line for all of us.”
The president was accompanied by first lady Michelle Obama, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among others.
The Memorial Day holiday has not always been without controversy for Obama. In his first year in office, 2009, a group of 60 academics wrote to him urging him to not memorialize the Civil War dead who had fought on the Confederate side. He did not comply.
He did, however, become the first president to send a wreath to the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, which commemorates the 200,000 blacks who lost their lives.
In 2010, Obama faced criticism from some conservatives when he went to Chicago on Memorial Day weekend rather than participate in the wreath-laying at Arlington. Vice President Biden laid a wreath at Arlington that year, while Obama went to a Memorial Day service at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Ill.
This year, the president and the first lady began the day by hosting a White House breakfast for families who have lost loved ones serving in the military. The event was closed to the media.