Thursday, December 21, 2006

Younger Generation Indifferent to Sacrifices of War

Over at USA Today, Jack Valenti's got a moving lament on the younger generation's indifference to the sacrifices of earlier Americans in times of war. Valenti's a former Chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America. He flew a B-25 attack bomber in 51 combat missions in World War II:

There is a piece of sadness that the election failed to debate. It is the lamentable detachment by the young among us to freedom's history.

The press has reported that Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, his masterly recreation of courage and fidelity to duty and country exhibited by young Marines in the bloodiest battle of World War II, has gone largely unattended by the youngsters of this day.

Watching this movie, watching ordinary young men performing extraordinary feats of heroism, broke my heart. They put to hazard their own lives not to win medals, but because their country was in danger. Why, then, a casual indifference to this story by so many young people? Maybe it's because we have been so benumbed by war, particularly this Iraq war, and because so few youngsters have worn a uniform. A movie about a battle a half a century ago carries no umbilical connection to them. That's understandable. But it ought not to be.

Perhaps some parents might want to do what I did years ago. When my son was about 14, I took him to Omaha Beach and the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France. We stood on the bluff above the beach in the same spot where Nazi troops had dug in. They had poured rifle, mortar and machine gunfire onto the U.S. troops clambering out of their landing crafts. They cut them down on the sand and in the water that seemed to still run red with the blood flowing so wantonly on that invasion day, June 6, 1944.

My son was struck with how close it was from the bluff to the beach. I said, "John it was very close, but remember those young boys never turned back, not one of them. They never turned back. They kept coming."

Then we walked a short distance to the American Cemetery. It is on land a grateful France granted to the United States for use in perpetuity. The Stars and Stripes flies over this cathedral of the dead. We turned our gaze to the grave markers, row upon row upon row, as far as the eye could see. There, I told my son, were buried 9,387 young men, many of whom were in between the ages of 18 and their early 20s, "just a few years older than you are right now," I said.

We walked among the markers laid out in serried ranks. I asked my son to read the inscriptions on those grave markers, the bland finalities of a young warrior's life — name, rank, outfit and the day he died — lives ended before they could be lived.

Finally, I stopped and looked full face at my son. "John, I want you to know why I brought you here." He looked puzzled. I said, "I wanted you to understand that these boys, who never knew you, nonetheless gave you the greatest gift one human can give another. They gave you the gift of freedom. They bought and paid for that gift in blood and bravery. They made it possible for you and millions like you to never have to test your own courage to see how you would react when the dagger is at the nation's belly and death stares you right in the face. You owe them a debt you will never be able to repay."

My son seemed genuinely moved. We never spoke about this again until one day years later, he phoned me. "Dad, last night I saw Saving Private Ryan. You were right. They never turned back, not a one. They kept coming." His voice trembled as he spoke.

Somehow, my own voice cracked a bit with gratitude. My son remembered. May God grant that every boy and girl in this free and loving land never forget the gift of young boys so long ago, a gift given to generations of Americans who were yet to be born.

I think Valenti's pining for a long-lost era of shared sacrifice during times of crisis. Perhaps the danger from Islamic fundamentalism isn't as acute as the totalitarian threats of the 1930s -- engagement in war today is not as pervasive an experience for the whole of the nation. World War II was "the good war," of course, and America's Cold War military experiences, especially Vietnam, met a very different set of social expectations with the emergence of postmodern culture.

Whatever the case, there seems less a sense of shared military commitment in the current era.
Newsweek had an interesting piece a couple of years back on military families and war, suggesting that today's military experience is isolated from the bulk of society:

Increasingly, it seems, America is divided between the vast majority who do not serve and the tiny minority who do. The shared sacrifice of World War II is but a distant memory. During World War II, 6 percent of Americans were in uniform; today, the Pentagon says, the figure is four tenths of 1 percent. On military bases, wives warily watch for a pair of somber-faced officers emerging from a car, a sign that bad news is about to arrive at the front door. At military hospitals, young men and women missing limbs are an increasingly familiar sight. But for the rest of us, going about our daily lives, it can be hard to tell there's a war on.
Check out my earlier post on the 65th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, which recalls the heroics of "the greatest generation." See also this post covering Victor Davis Hanson's analysis of the changing nature of warfare.

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