Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Ken Burns’ documentary has been getting much deserved media attention, generally of the positive nature. Most have mentioned his motive for presenting a 16hr documentary on events that, for those now in their senior years, was not history, but a life defining experience. The sad fact is that, like much of the richness of our nation’s history, the risks, the toil, and the sacrifices are either unknown to, or ignored by, a large number of “yuppie puppies”, contemporary journalists and members of the professoriate class.
Growing up as a “baby-boomer” born on Flag Day in 1946, every adult with whom I had contact had first hand knowledge of “The War”. My next door neighbor, also a high school football coach and history teacher, had been an Army Ranger and landed on D-Day. The fellow across the street was a wounded Infantry veteran of the European Theater. The Junior High PE coach had lost his toes to frost bite during the Battle of the Bulge. And my barber served as a Navy armed guard on a merchant marine ship that convoyed the perilous journey to Murmansk, Russia. My mentor, when I was assigned to FT Bragg, was a veteran of Guadalcanal and Korea. My platoon sergeant during my 1965 deployment to the Dominican Republic, was a World War II combat vet. My shop warrant officer in Thailand was a veteran of the China-Burma-India Theater. They seldom talked about the war.
In the American community of the 50’s and 60’s virtually everyone had experienced the war, either on the home front with rationed gas and food or collecting cans for the war effort, or in the military. Almost every family had a relative in the military. The country felt a sense of urgency, and knew that victory was the only acceptable outcome. Those people were proud of what their sacrifice and commitment accomplished.
Ken Burns believes that there are now too many myths about “The War,” and he is correct. Perhaps the myths were a way for the nation to honor its sacrifice. Maybe they were the creation of Hollywood efforts to prop up morale. Perhaps no one wanted to remember the ugliness and tragedy that was brought to so many homes, and glorified the combat to hide the pain. In truth, the war was, for those who were caught up in the fighting, a nightmare. The struggle to defeat Fascism and Japanese imperialism was the most horrible world wide experience of the twentieth century.
When the nation was compelled to fight, the depression was still lingering and we were almost totally unprepared. Our soldiers often had inferior equipment: tanks were under-gunned and incinerated the crews if they were hit, torpedoes often did not detonate, most of the aircraft we utilized at the beginning of the war were marginal at best, and the Navy had a large number of aged and obsolete ships, especially in the Asiatic Fleet. Home defense volunteers were issued single shot rifles that dated to the Plains Indian Wars. Major intelligence failures occurred: Pearl Harbor, Market Garden, and the 1944 German winter offensive in the Ardennes. Military leadership was uneven and many men were needlessly killed in poorly planned and/or unnecessary campaigns. The first six months of the war were marked by one setback after another.
While Americans were aware of military set backs, the truth of the degree of battle damage and casualties was a closely guarded secret. Censorship was complete. It would be years before photos of the bodies of dead American soldiers were published. There was no CNN or MSNBC second guessing the President or the effectiveness of the military. No “brave, angst ridden” whistle blowers came forward to leak vital information regarding operations and intelligence. Even the Republicans, who spent the war as the minority party, never attempted to undermine the effort, or attack the Executive branch for failures and poor judgment, although a case could have been made for both. There was a sense of common purpose. The people, the politicians and the press all supported the effort. They felt an allegiance to the country and its ideals and institutions. Even Hollywood lent its considerable talents to support the effort, and some actors served in the military.
We’ve come a long way, baby!
Today we struggle against an enemy, the adherents and supporters of extremist Islam, that is just as brutal, if not more so, than the Nazis. There is no negotiation possible. They have no interest in compromise, coexistence, or the truth. We fight against a tyranny of twisted faith that promotes intimidation and murder. It is void of any compassion, and seeks only to compel obedience and control everything. Its activities are world wide. The army it loosely commands, dispersed as it is, is substantial. And they seek the destruction of Western culture, and the philosophies and faiths of the Far East. No one is safe.
But the United States of today is the product of decades of liberal influence. Christianity, personal responsibility, traditional marriage, rugged individualism, purity, sobriety, child rearing, honesty, the right of self defense and the free market have been under constant assault. Liberals pour scorn on the very values that helped us endure and prevail in “The War.” American universities have become indoctrination mills, controlled by aging socialists and their intellectual progeny. That is why so many journalists are confessed liberals. They refuse to wear American flag lapel pins, not because they want to be neutral, but because they think America’s values are wrong. The press has shown itself to be independent, but hardly unbiased. Many of today’s journalists know little about the subjects on which they report. Consequently, non-veterans, who share almost nothing with the soldiers in the field, focus on coalition casualties and the latest suicide bombing. They ignore any mention of the compassion and restraint demonstrated to the populace by our military. Every mistake is amplified, and every accusation, no matter how outrageous, is treated as valid. Their assessment is always grim, even if the facts indicate otherwise.
The press provides all the justification for liberal politicians to criticize, malign, badger and make libelous accusation against President Bush. Congressional liberals have hypocritically denounced the need to depose Sadam, even though most of them made the same case for war that the President did. The liberals want control, and success in Iraq would undermine their goals. There is no longer a “loyal opposition.”
The most striking difference between the America of the 1940’s and today is the lack of shared sacrifice. People talk about supporting the troops, but very few have actually served in the military. During the draft era, a large percentage of men served in the armed forces. There were some “lifers,” but many soldiers put in their time and then returned to civilian life. But those that separated from service could empathize with those that stayed. This is the sadness. Most of today’s population under the age of 50 doesn’t even remember the draft, and they haven’t a clue about the selflessness, discipline, and code of conduct that the soldier, sailor, marine or airman embraces. It was summed up best by my next door neighbor: “I wouldn’t pay a nickel to do it all again, or trade it for a million dollars.” As the military was downsized following the break-up of the Warsaw Pact, and in the aftermath of Desert Storm, fewer of our citizens volunteered to share the burden to defend liberty.
The authorized strength of our military was dramatically reduced to cash in on the “peace dividend.” Liberals insisted upon this policy to increase spending on social programs and “pork barrel” programs. Surprisingly, in spite of the force cuts, the Pentagon has been able to create the best trained, best equipped, best led, most lethal and yet most principled fighting force that has ever existed. People who serve today have made a conscious decision to do so. Some of the volunteers are in it for the benefits or excitement, but most feel a sense of duty and devotion to our country. They are quite literally the best people we have. High school dropouts and “gang-bangers” need not apply. Today, the men and women that fight to protect us, live in harsh and lethal environments, risking everything, and they are proud to do it. They are living examples of the morals and commitment to human dignity and freedom that motivated our country to defeat evil in the past. Those are the morals and commitments that are so often ridiculed by the liberals.
There has never been a good war. Innocent people often get hurt. Young men, and now women, too often leave their homes and never return. National treasure is wasted, and destruction in the wake of combat leaves a wounded land. But as bad as war is, there is a worse alternative.
Most historians mark the beginning of the Second World War with the invasion of Poland. That may have been the beginning of hostilities, but the war started when the British and the French reneged on their treaty obligations and consented to Germany’s occupation of the Czech Sudetenland. In their desperate search to prevent a repeat of the carnage of the First World War, they sought to appease Hitler, and dealt treacherously with an ally. At that time Winston Churchill described the appeasers’ decision in three brief sentences: “They had the choice between war and shame. They chose shame. They will get war.”
World War II would claim more lives than any other single war in history. During the Battle of the Bulge an average of 1500 American soldiers died every day. Before we blunted the German offensive and pushed them back, 19,000 American soldiers would be killed. Today the press and liberal politicians keep a running tab on US casualties, as if these dead soldiers are some sort of prop for their defeatism. That’s how so many of those on the left view this. Dead soldiers are a number, a statistic, a talking point.
I remember talking to a fellow who was a veteran of the 101st Airborne Division. He jumped at Normandy, fought in Bastogne. He used to say quite often that “The cheapest thing in war is a human life.” Today, it’s the cheapest thing in politics.