Along the Tracks

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Honoring the sacrifice of the Greatest Generation

From Saturday's Bryan Times and Northwest Signal:

By Paul A. Miller
Sixty years ago, men were boarding ships and planes, preparing to hurl themselves at a reckless enemy, an indiscriminate killer that ruled through fear and exercised power against non-combatants to intimidate and overwhelm the war weary, hoping victory over the allied home front might spell reprieve in a war the enemy’s best minds knew they must surely lose in battle.

Last week, America and her old allies joined together in dedication of a memorial which, until very recently, seemed utterly unnecessary. Why unnecessary? Because the very world we live in, the freedoms, the economic opportunities, the advancements - even the lines on the map - have been a monument to the Greatest Generation (to echo Tom Brokaw’s insightful designation) and its sacrifices in World War II.

How could anyone speak of civil rights without the background of freedom bought with blood? The American economy is built on the flow of goods, services and currency around the world, and would be a pitiful shadow of its present strength had the Allies failed in the war.

Every election day is a memorial to the sacrifices of those who served in World War II. The dollar is a memorial to World War II veterans. The ACLU is a memorial.

Those memorials stretch far beyond America’s shores. International courts, multilateral treaties and conventions, the United Nations - all these are memorials to the veterans of World War II. The European Union is a memorial. France is a memorial.

Yet, the past three years have shown that as a generation fades from the scene and a new one takes its place, memories fail, and people lose sight of the memorials in plain view before their eyes. Thus, something simple, focused in one place and at one time, becomes a necessary concession to human nature.

It seems ironically fitting we should dedicate a static few acres to those who fought to liberate millions while at the same time so many dismiss the millions liberated by our present war. It is a great deal easier to lay a wreath on a memory than to honor a memory with similar sacrifice.

And how great was that sacrifice? Two hundred ninety-one thousand five hundred fifty-seven (291,557) American soldiers died in World War II - 6,603 on D-Day alone - every one of them a son, brother or father; daughter, sister or mother. Still, the home front did not falter; rather, it was steeled to achieving victory as a lasting tribute to the painful sacrifice.

In the current war, 942 soldiers have given that ultimate sacrifice as well. Is the home front similarly determined to see their sacrifice honored through victory?

When speaking of wars and memorials, we generally focus on the soldiers lost, but let’s look at this from another angle. Out of the 2,400 killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor, 48 were civilians - a statistically negligible figure dwarfed by the nearly 300,000 U.S. soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the following war.
In the War on Terrorism, 3,000 American civilians lost their lives in the sneak attacks of Sept. 11, and a few dozen more have been killed by terrorists since. Look at those two above figures again. Sixty-two times as many American civilians died in the surprise strike initiating the War on Terrorism as died in the surprise strike in World War II!

Now that your head is spinning, consider some of the arguments which could have been made as 1942 became 1943, then ‘44, then ‘45, and ships needed winches to unload the stacks of dead soldiers every day. Some might have asked, “Why bother with Germany? They didn’t attack us, Japan did.” Some might have wondered, “Why help the Soviet Union? They’re just commies.” Some might have been more blunt: “America has no right to go around the world imposing its will on other nations like Vichy France, Italy or Hungary.”

Indeed, there were such calls during WW II, but they were largely, and rightly, ignored. You see, the Greatest Generation was not great just for winning the war. The Greatest Generation was great for the central reason behind fighting the war. For America, anything more than a retaliatory strike on Japan was completely optional. Yet the Greatest Generation saw beyond its own wounds, and its own selfish interests. The Greatest Generation understood America is more than a plot of land or a single language group or even a governmental system. The Greatest Generation understood America is an ideal, a group of principles around which people can commit of free will; an American holds a creed. And that creed compels the holder to admit as universal the equality of rights of all people. To ignore oppression and brutality where one has the ability to alleviate and liberate is to dishonor that creed.

The Greatest Generation understood honoring the creed does not always require war. The Greatest Generation understood that sometimes it does.

Today, there are signs some would gladly accept something less than victory in the War on Terrorism to placate international and domestic critics. They would pull back from assisting those denied freedom by killers. They would leave a weakened enemy the opportunity to regroup and regain the offensive. They would turn a blind eye to those who suffer under Islamofascism, crying out for an opportunity to hold in their hands the rights that constitute our American creed, rights we continue to hold ourselves thanks to the Greatest Generation.

I would suggest that a greater monument to the sacrifices of 60 years ago would be a redoubled commitment to freedom today, and to honoring the sacrifices of soldiers in this present war.


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