Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Greatest Generation

Today is December 7th, the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. President Franklin Roosevelt so memorably described the event in a broadcast speech that began as follows: "Yesterday, December 7, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan." Interestingly, that line, one of the most famous in history, almost never made it into publication until FDR made a significant change in the speech, which originally read, "a date which will live in world history."

World War II was a devastating conflict that resulted in many American and Allied deaths, as well as untold casualties for the nations of Japan, Germany and Italy. Damage to some of the most beautiful cities in the world was incalculable, culminating with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th, 1945 respectively. I won't dwell on the horrors of that war, which have been well-documented by others far more qualified than I. On the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, I want to say a few words about the men and women who made the allied victory and our way of life possible.

At the time of the Pearl Harbor bombing, feelings ran high in the United States, and men and women eagerly volunteered in unprecedented numbers to serve their country. There was no fleeing to Canada to escape the draft, as a matter of fact, Canada was one of America's staunchest allies in WWII. Allied troops went to grim places like Normandy, Midway, Guadalcanal, Stalingrad and Iwo Jima; many never returned. They gave their lives to defeat the forces Hitler and Hirohito, and make the world safe for democracy. To be sure there were giants like Roosevelt, Churchill and DeGaulle, but closer to the noise and the carnage were so many nameless heroes who did their duty and paid the ultimate price for our freedom.

The main point of this post is the enormous debt we owe these men and women. As a kid I remember that Veteran's Day (formerly Armistice Day) celebrations were a bigger deal, parades were better attended, and citizens proudly wore their red poppies in remembrance of our veterans. (Red poppies grew in Flanders Fields in Belgium among the many crosses that now mark the resting places of fallen soldiers.) They have come to symbolize the memory of those who gave their lives in World War I, and all wars, and who are immortalized in the poem: "In Flanders Fields" by John McCrae

These feelings are not so much on display today. The national holiday honoring veterans has become an excuse for early shopping days at the mall. School children seem too busy learning "revisionist history" and don't hear enough about the brave soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who made it possible for them to learn their lessons in English instead of German or Japanese. They have been called "the greatest generation", and I believe they were, but we are failing in our responsibility to honor their valor by not making our children more aware of their sacrifices.

When veterans returned from Europe, the Pacific and even Korea they were hailed as heroes. I can remember them at Mass on Sundays in their uniforms, and people going out of their way to stop them after church and thank them for their service. Employers went out of their way to hire them, and government rewarded them with the G.I. bill that paid for college education and low cost home mortgages. When veterans came home from Viet Nam, they were spit on, harassed and made to feel like their country didn't want them. Celebrity traitors like "Hanoi Jane" Fonda scorned them. So many became depressed and withdrew from family and friends. Some turned to drugs or alcohol to cope. Even veterans hospitals, as uncovered in the recent scandals, were providing sub-standard care and grossly inadequate facilities.

I think with the current war in Iraq, people have figured out that the troops don't start the wars, they simply do what their country asks of them. They leave their homes and families for far-away, hostile places to defend America and her allies. Their lives are put on hold, and they risk everything for our safety and well-being. One of the local TV stations has been running clips of service men and women wishing their loved ones at home Merry Christmas. It breaks your heart to hear them trying to sound upbeat and happy, while the crack in their voices tells a different story. They not only need our prayers for a speedy return, but need to be welcomed with open arms when they come home to us safely.

Until then, the next time you see a military person in uniform, no matter where, go out of your way to thank them for their service. Show them that Americans can differentiate between the people who get us into wars, and our brave sons and daughters who are forced to fight them. The greatest generation made our freedom possible; let's show their successors the gratitude and respect they deserve.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

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