05/26/03: Bradley, The Fighting Vehicle

It's Memorial Day, and that means we're guaranteed to see two scenes on TV today. President Bush will talk about the suffering and sacrifice of America's soldiers while, behind him, little flags decorate seemingly endless rows of gleaming tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery. And the local newscaster will talk about the suffering and sacrifice of America's motorists while, behind her, little flags decorate the seemingly endless rows of gleaming vehicles jamming the Interstate.

Memorial Day is America's national traffic holiday. The long weekend at the end of May marks the unofficial start of summer, and with it, the start of summer travel season. This weekend, 30 million people got in their cars and headed off on journeys of 50 miles or more to beaches, theme parks, family picnics and every other kind of get-away. By the end of the day today we will have collectively logged, at minimum, 1.5 billion miles, and a significant portion of the 3.9 billion hours its estimated that we will spend stuck in traffic this year.

The holiday wasn't always celebrated in plush bucket seats and climate control. The U.S. observed its first Memorial Day on May 30th, 1868. General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic ordered that the day be designated for placing flowers and flags on the graves of soldiers who died in the Civil War. He called it Decoration Day. Southern states refused to recognize the holiday until after World War I when it was changed to acknowledge soldiers who died in any American war. In 1971, Congress made Memorial Day an official federal holiday and moved the date to the last Monday in May to create an annual three-day weekend. Inadvertently, Congress also created an annual, coast-to-coast traffic jam.

In the wake of Gulf War 2, it is, perhaps, appropriate that we should spend this Memorial Day stuck in traffic. The war was, after all, an overwhelming display of American vehicular might. During the military build-up, the US sent more than TK vehicles to the Gulf. Though the 350-mile advance to Baghdad was lightning fast by military standards, the convoys rolling through Iraq often appeared to be stalled in The Mother of All Traffic Jams. Tanks, armored vehicles and supply trucks crowded Iraqi highways, backing up for miles at river crossings, points of resistance, and in tough weather.

Despite the traffic, the military campaign will go down as one of the swiftest armored advances in history. It may also go down as one of the greatest product placement campaigns in the history of advertising. The names that got some of the most heroic prime-time billing during the war didn't belong to soldiers, politicians or journalists. Bradley, Abrams and Hummer - the big heroes of Gulf War 2 were vehicles.

The Bradley Fighting Vehicle, in particular, was singled out for praise by President Bush during his visit to California a few weeks ago. The Fighting Vehicle is kind of a cross between an armored personnel carrier and a tank. Designed to maneuver quickly and carry six soldiers into battle, it's not hard to imagine a consumer version of the Bradley rapidly deploying youth soccer teams to suburban practice fields. But it's the name that really works. Bradley, the Fighting Vehicle. It sounds more like a character out of a children's story than a military weapons system. With so many people already owning General Motors' Hummer, a consumer version of the military Humvee, folks must now be lusting after the Bradley. With a $3.2 million sticker price, 0% financing will be a necessity.

Frankly, Memorial Day travelers could use the heavy armor of a Bradley. If recent trends hold true, then somewhere around five hundred people will have been killed on our nation's roads and highways by the end of this evening's travel. That's a greater number of fatalities than the US military suffered in both Gulf Wars combined. Amazingly, that's not all that many more traffic deaths than usual. In the year 2000, more than 41,000 people were killed in car crashes in the U.S.. The list of names could fill three-quarters of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial wall. With casualties like that, we almost need a Memorial Day for Memorial Day.

Though no American automobile has yet reached the 50,000 pound weight or one mile-per-gallon guzzling rate of a Bradley, this year's holiday traffic is appreciably bigger and less fuel efficient than last year's. Before the war, U.S. gas prices were at all-time highs. Afterwards, they dropped 20 cents, ensuring the usual heavy traffic this holiday weekend. Heavy traffic means heavy gas consumption. In the nation's most congested cities -- Los Angeles, Seattle, Washington D.C. -- gridlocked drivers idle away as much as 100 gallons of gas each year. This idle waste of a finite natural resource ensures that American soldiers will, in the coming years, continue to be deployed abroad to protect a steady supply of inexpensive oil. Our American economy and way of life depend on them to do so. Perhaps next Memorial Day weekend more of us will decide that the best way to honor America's fallen soldiers is to leave the car at home.