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D-Day, Midway and a Nation at War: Thoughts on History as the Greatest Generation Passes Away

d-day-orderDwight Eisenhower speaking with men of the 101st Airborne Division before they jumped into Normandy

“At the end of the twentieth century the contributions of this generation would be in bold print in any review of this turbulent and earth-altering time. It may be historically premature to judge the greatness of a whole generation, but indisputably, there are common traits that cannot be denied. It is a generation that, by and large, made no demands of homage from those who followed and prospered economically, politically, and culturally because of its sacrifices. It is a generation of towering achievement and modest demeanor, a legacy of their formative years when they were participants in and witness to sacrifices of the highest order. They know how many of the best of their generation didn’t make it to their early twenties, how many brilliant scientists, teachers, spiritual and business leaders, politicians and artists were lost in the ravages of the greatest war the world has seen.” Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation

I was born in 1960 and thankfully for whatever reason I developed a love of history and heritage. I began reading history books as early as second and third grade. The American Heritage Publishing Company had a Junior Library series that I could not get enough of awhile another publisher (it may have also been American Heritage) had a series of biographies which drew me into the lives of many famous people. From 3rd grade on I spent every spare moment at school in the library, even frequently cutting geometry class in 10th grade to explore the history reference books that I could not check out and take home.

tumblr_lahyzakLSB1qbjz0go1_500Marine Colonel Francis I. Fenton, kneeling prays at the foot of his son’s grave on Okinawa 1945

I think that anyone that knew me then could probably associate me with a big stack of books that I lugged to and from class and back and forth from home to school. The ironic thing is that as I pack for work or to come home every day at the Staff College my back pack from my tour in Iraq is filled with the books that I am reading or using for research. Maybe it is not ironic, maybe it is the fact that some things never change. For me the quest for knowledge and historical, philosophical, or scientific truth is something that I cannot get enough of, nor be content to think that I know everything on any given subject.

This little introduction takes me into today’s subject. For those that don’t know we are coming up on the anniversaries of two of the most amazing historical events of the past 100 years next week. They are the battles of Midway, June 4th through June 6th 1942 and the the invasion of France, or D-Day, June 6th 1944.

ts8The pilots of Torpedo 8, only one survived Midway

I have always been amazed by the men who faced the Japanese at Midway, a battle that by any reasonable means should have resulted in a Japanese victory as well as them men that stormed the beaches at Normandy just two years later. When I first started reading about these battles many of the veterans were still alive, many not much older than I am today. However today not many are left, and the few that remain generally served as junior officers or enlisted personnel, none in high command.

Both battles are remarkable because an American or Allied loss could have changed the course of history. Had the United States Navy been defeated at Midway it could have brought about a Japanese victory, or more likely made the ultimate American victory much more costly and drawn out. Had the Allies been repulsed at Normandy it could have split the allied coalition or given the Germans the chance to renew their fight against the Soviet Union and possibly change history.

Thus when I look at these two events, battles that for most are now ancient history I am in awe of the men who fought them. They are not academic exercises for me, but as someone who has served at sea and on land in war I feel a certain camaraderie with these men.

I remember reading Cornelius Ryan’s classic book “The Longest Day” and seeing the movie of the same name in grade school, and reading Walter Lord’s classic on Midway “Incredible Victory” when I was in 7th grade. Both are excellent books which have stood the test of time and though I have read and done much more research and writing on both battles I still keep a copy of each book and probably re-read each every few years and consult them for any new projects. Likewise have been fortunate enough to meet some of the men who served in both of these battles, and even in my time as an Army chaplain be with them in their declining years. Men like Frank Smoker and Henry Boyd, both Normandy vets who have since passed away mean much to me.

442ndRCTThe 442nd Regimental Combat Team

Today when I see a World War Two veteran, no matter where I encounter them, I make sure that I thank them for their service. They are part of an amazing generation of Americans who bequeathed those of us who live today so much, both during the war and after the war. Many millions served in the military, while many more served in war industries. All contributed to war bond drives, victory gardens and yes even increased taxes and decreased civil liberties to win the war.

The fact that Japanese Americans served in the most highly decorated Army units of the war despite their families being incarcerated in American versions of concentration camps is a testimony to sacrifice.

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Likewise the efforts of African Americans who went to war despite being second class citizens and discriminated against under the Jim Crow Laws, which even Nazis like Hermann Goering recognized were only different from the the Nazi anti-Semitic laws and persecution in manner of degree.

That was an amazing an unique generation of Citizen Soldiers. With few exceptions they were not the professional career soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who serve today. Most would not have considered themselves “warriors.” They were there to do a job, win a war and go home. It was part of who they were as Americans.

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How many today would do any of those things? Today we have well under one percent of the population who have served in the wars of the past 13 years, fewer who have served in combat or in a combat zone. Likewise the population in general and in particular the bankers, businesses, lobbyists and defense contractors are not asked to sacrifice anything, instead when the country was attacked the President and others decried the fact that war might prevent people from doing business, shopping or living a normal life. For God’s sake, were at war and that attitude would have been incomprehensible to those of the Greatest Generation who for the most part either went to war, or supported the war effort with their work and other contributions. For them patriotism was not a bumper sticker.

Rachel Maddow said it well in her book Drift The Unmooring of American Military Power:

“When civilians are not asked to pay any price, it’s easy to be at war – not just to intervene in a foreign land in the first place, but to keep on fighting there. The justifications for staying at war don’t have to be particularly rational or cogently argued when so few Americans are making the sacrifice that it takes to stay.”

scan002411-483x600Jimmy Stewart and his Bomber Crew

Because of the sacrifice of people of the Greatest Generation I am grateful for them. I believe that we can learn so much from them. Even A-List Hollywood stars and professional sport heroes left their careers to serve their country. Clarke Gable, Audie Murphy, Glenn Miller, Jimmy Stewart, Bob Feller, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio just to name a few sacrificed major portions of their careers to serve. With the exception of Pat Tillman who died in a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan which was covered up by the Army and Bush administration, how many of the 1%, the A-List or professional athletes can you name that have left sacrificed their fortunes to serve in the front lines? I can’t name any others, but in the Second World War even the 1% had skin in the game so to speak, the Kennedy’s, Roosevelt’s and the Bush’s to name just a few.

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I think that is why I am in awe of those of the Greatest Generation and why as the anniversaries of Midway and D-Day approach I am extra thoughtful, quite reflective and very thankful for those who through their sacrifice made so much of what we have today possible. What bothers me today is how few, especially of those who either advocate for war, lobby for it or profit from it no matter what their political, economic or religious persuasion is, offers to serve or pay for the cost of war.

Today those costs are borne by a tiny minority of Americans, military professionals of the all-volunteer military, both active duty and reserve who have endured deployment after deployment as the bulk of the nation stood by, mostly cheering them on. Of course as one who had his father serve in Vietnam and entered the military not long after had to endure the jeers of Americans, cheers are nice. They are much better than being called a “Nazi” for wearing your uniform to class. However, sometimes I think that many that cheer us on are able to due so because vicarious patriotism is easy. Vicarious patriotism anything, someone else serves, and someone else dies while they “support the troops” without actually doing anything.

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Now please don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of good people who have never served in the military and who do care. Men and women who take action to support the troops, both those serving and the veterans, including those disabled in some way by war. For them I am grateful, they donate time, money and personal effort to care, and I do not care if the are conservatives or liberals, Republicans, Democrats or Independents, religious or atheist. They are Americans who are doing something. Likewise I do not disparage those who take the time to learn the issues that the nation faces and the domestic policies that impact the country and in a healthy body politic it doesn’t mean that we have to completely agree with each other to be patriots. Such an understanding would have been unthinkable to our founders much less most of the Greatest Generation. Veterans issues are important but national security also involves so much more, everything from the infrastructure that the Greatest Generation had the vision and wherewithal to build to the environment.

I have been to Normandy as well as other World War II battlefields in Europe and the Pacific. I can only agree with Tom Brokaw who wrote: “there on the beaches of Normandy I began to reflect on the wonders of these ordinary people whose lives were laced with the markings of greatness.”

So, when you read anything I write or re-publish during the next couple of weeks, be it about D-Day, Midway or even Gettysburg, please read what I write though those lenses. It is not that I am bitter. I have chosen my life in the military, but I wonder why so few of us bear the burden. It is a question that every citizen must ask themselves and their political representatives.

Rabbi Roland Gittlesohn, a Navy Chaplain serving with the Marines gave a eulogy at the dedication of a cemetery on Iwo Jima that puts it all in perspective.

“Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors generations ago helped in her founding, and other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores.

Here lie officers and men, Negroes and whites, rich men and poor . . .together. Here are Protestants, Catholics and Jews together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many men of each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudices. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.

Whosoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or who thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. To this, then, as our solemn duty, sacred duty do we the living now dedicate ourselves: to the right of Protestants, Catholics and Jews, of white men and Negroes alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have here paid the price. .

We here solemnly swear that this shall not be in vain. Out of this and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this will come, we promise, the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere.”

Since the last members of the Greatest Generation are passing away at an ever increasing rate and few will remain among us; I will ask you to ask yourself the question posed by the World War II veteran and hero John F Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, national security, Political Commentary

Reflecting on the High Water Mark of the Confederacy and the Importance of Our Union

Yesterday was the 148th Anniversary of Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. There is a spot near the Copse of Trees along Cemetery Ridge which is referred to as the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy.” It is the spot close to where Confederate Brigadier General Lo Armistead fell mortally wounded as the decimated remains of his command were overwhelmed by Union forces shortly after they breached the Union line. It is a place immortalized in history, literature and film. It is the place that marked the beginning of the end for the great evil of slavery in America.

My ancestors lived in Cabell County which in 1861 was part of Virginia. They were slave holders along the Mud River, a tributary of the Ohio River just to the north of what is now Huntington West Virginia. When war came to the country the family patriarch James Dundas and my great, great grandfather joined the 8th Virginia Cavalry Regiment in which he served the bulk of the war as a Lieutenant.  When it ended he refused to sign the loyalty oath to the Union and had his lands, which are now some of the most valuable in that part of West Virginia confiscated and sold by the Federal Government.  He was a believer in the “Lost Cause” that romantic and confused idea about the rightness of the South in its war against what they called “Northern aggression.”

Because he served I am eligible for membership in the Sons of the Confederacy. However it is something that I cannot do.  There are some that do this as a means to honor their relatives that served in the war and I do not make light of their devotion to their family, but there are some that take that devotion to places that I cannot go.  As much as I admire the valor and personal integrity of many military men who served the Confederacy I cannot for a moment think that their “cause” was just.

It has been said that the North won the war but that the South won the history.  I think this is true. Many people now days like to reduce the reasons for the war to the South protecting its rights.  Sometimes the argument is “states rights” or “economic freedom” and those that make these arguments romanticize the valor shown by Confederate soldiers on the battlefield but conveniently ignore or obscure the evil of the Southern economic system. The “rights” and the “economic freedom” were based upon the enslavement and exploitation of the Black man to maintain an archaic economy based on agriculture, particularly the export of King Cotton.  Arguments which try to place the blame on the North, especially arguments that attempt to turn the Northern States into economic predators’ intent on suppressing the economic rights of Southerners only serve to show the bankruptcy of the idea itself. The fact that the “economic and political freedom” of Southerners was founded on the enslavement of a whole race of people matters not because the “cause” is greater.

The fact is that the longer the South relied solely on its agriculture which was supported by the institution of slavery it deprived itself of the means of economic progress, the same progress that propelled the North to prosperity. The south lagged in all industrial areas as well as transportation infrastructure. The majority of non-slave owning whites lived at the poverty line and only enjoyed some elevated social status because the slaves ranked beneath them on the sociological and economic hierarchy.  The South depended on cheap imports from England, which then was still considered an enemy of the country. When tariffs to protect newly establish American industries were enacted in 1828 South Carolina attempted to nullify the Federal law even raising troops and threatened a revolt in 1832.

The Southern economic system was immoral and antiquated. It enslaved blacks and it impoverished most rural Southerners, with the exception of those that owned the land and the slaves. It was a hateful, backward and loathsome system which even the southern churches attempted to justify from Scripture.  Southern Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians would all break away from their parent denominations regarding slavery.

This does not mean that I think that the average Confederate soldier or officers were dishonorable men. Many officers who had served in the United States Army hated the breakup of the Union but served the South because it was the land that they were from. It was the home of their families and part of who they were.  To judge them as wanting 150 years later when we have almost no connection to family or home in a post industrial world is to impose the standards of a world that they did not know upon them. For those that gave up everything to serve one can feel a measure of sympathy.  So many died and so much of the South was destroyed in the defense of that “cause” one has to wonder just why the political and religious leaders of the South were willing to maintain such an inadequate and evil economic system one that hurt poor Southern whites nearly as much as it did blacks.

The war devastated the South and the radicals that ran “Reconstruction” ensured that Southerners suffered terrible degradation and that Southern blacks would have even more obstacles raised against them by the now very angry and revengeful whites.  It would take another 80-100 years to end segregation and secure voting rights for blacks. Thus I have no desire to become part of an organization that even gives the appearance of supporting the “cause” even if doing so would allow me to “honor” an ancestor who raised his hand against the country that I serve.

I was raised on the West Coast but have lived in the South much of my adult life due to military assignments. I have served in National Guard units that trace their lineage to Confederate regiments in Texas and Virginia. Despite my Confederate connections both familial and by service I can find little of the romance and idealism that some find in the Confederacy and the “Lost Cause.” I see the Civil War for what it was, a tragedy of the highest order brought about by the need of some to enslave others to maintain their economic system.

Today there are many that use the flags of the Confederacy outside of their historic context. They are often used as a symbol of either racial hatred or of defiance to the Federal Government by white Supremacist or anti-government organizations.  Many that use them openly advocate for the overthrow of the Federal Government.  The calls for such “revolt” can be found all over the country even in the halls of Congress much as they were in the 1830s, 40s and 50s. Some of this is based in libertarian economic philosophy which labels the government as the enemy of business, some based social policies which are against their religious beliefs and some sadly to say based in an almost xenophobic racial hatred.  The scary thing as that the divisions in the country are probably as great as or greater than they were in the 1850s as the country lurched inexorably to Civil War with neither side willing to do anything that might lessen their political or economic power even if it means the ruin of the country.

In recent weeks I have seen the symbols of the Confederacy, particularly the Battle Flag displayed in manners that can only be seen as symbols of defiance.  Tomorrow is July 4th and it seems to me that the flag that should be most prominently displayed is not a Confederate banner, nor even the Gadsen flag, a flag from the Revolutionary War which is used as a rallying symbol for many in the Tea Party movement but the Stars and Stripes.  Somehow I find the flag flown in rebellion to the country that I serve displayed in such an arrogant manner

For many of these people it is the Federal Government which is the enemy. Now I know that our system of government has its flaws. Likewise I cannot agree more about the corruption of many in political office, regardless of their political allegiance.  While it is true that the Federal Government has taken upon itself many powers some never envisioned by those that crafted the Constitution, it has done so because leaders of both political parties have consented to it and even worked to strengthen the Federal Government with the consent of the American people that elect them again and again.

Despite this much of this has been accomplished by the Federal Government has been for the good for the country and people no matter what the critics say. Many of the things that we enjoy today are the result of the work of the Federal Government and not business as much as those that deify big corporations want to believe. There are the National Parks, laws against child labor and for safe workplaces brought about by Teddy Roosevelt, the infrastructure built in the 1930s and 1940s by the Franklin Roosevelt administration. The Roosevelt administration also brought about Social Security and banking regulations to protect Americans from corporations and banks that violated the public trust. The Eisenhower administration began the Interstate Highway system which is the backbone of our transportation system.  Likewise the Space Program and yes even the military have led the way in technological, scientific and medical innovation including that thing that we all take for granted today the Internet.

Today quite a few people are calling for revolt or secession if they do not get what they want be it socially, politically or economically. For years politicians on both sides have fought to minimize such talk and enact compromises with the usual discontent that comes with compromise.  Unfortunately many of those compromises have had the effect of widening the political divide much as the various compromises on the road to the Civil War.  Jefferson said of the Missouri Compromise of 1824: “but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.”

We have allowed the issues of our time to become a fire of unbridled angry passion where those with almost no historical understanding and whose history is often based on myth stake claims and promote ideas that will destroy this Union if they continue. Unfortunately we have not yet reached the high water mark of this movement yet and I fear like Jefferson that the hatred and division will only grow worse as both radical on the right and left prepare for conflict.

Tomorrow we celebrate the 235th anniversary of our Declaration of Independence.  It is a remarkable occasion. It is the anniversary that free people as well as those oppressed around the world look to as a beacon of liberty. It has been paid for time and time again, especially during that cruel Civil War which killed more American soldiers than any other war that we have fought.

A few months after Gettysburg Abraham Lincoln a man much reviled by those that have romanticized the Cause and who is demonized by many “conservative” politicians and pundits today as a “tyrant” made these brief remarks at the site of the battle:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Today with so many radicals on both the political right and political left doing all that they can to plunge us into yet another civil war we should remember Lincoln’s word and rededicate ourselves to this Union, this remarkable Union.  Tony Blair the former Prime Minster of Great Britain remarked today:

“It may be strange for a former British Prime Minister to offer thoughts on America when the country will be celebrating its independence from Britain. But the circumstances of independence are part of what makes America the great and proud nation it is today. And what gives nobility to the American character.

That nobility isn’t about being nicer, better or more successful than anyone else. It is a feeling about the country. It is a devotion to the American ideal that at a certain point transcends class, race, religion or upbringing. That ideal is about values, freedom, the rule of law, democracy. It is also about the way you achieve: on merit, by your own efforts and hard work.

But it is most of all that in striving for and protecting that ideal, you as an individual take second place to the interests of the nation as a whole. This is what makes the country determined to overcome its challenges. It is what makes its soldiers give their lives in sacrifice. It is what brings every variety of American, from the lowest to the highest, to their feet when “The Star-Spangled Banner” is played.

Of course the ideal is not always met – that is obvious. But it is always striven for.

The next years will test the American character. The world is changing. New powers are emerging. But America should have confidence. This changing world does not diminish the need for that American ideal. It only reaffirms it.”

I think that the Prime Minister got it right.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, philosophy, Political Commentary, Religion