Monday, June 07, 2010
66 Years Later
MORE MOREMORIAL. I hope some of you followed our suggestion to observe "Military History Week," from Memorial Day last Monday through the 66th anniversary of D-Day yesterday. We aimed you at the old TV series Victory at Sea, which memorably recorded the invasion here, here, and here. Here's the second clip.
It's a long long time ago now, isn't it? Maybe that's why the exact opposite of our suggestion appears to be what has occurred. I looked in vain through the Turner Classic Movies, American Movie Channel, and History Channel listings for a repeat of their creditable performance on Memorial Day. I was unable to find a showing on any channel of Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day, or a repeat of the Band of Brothers marathon that ran a week ago. D-Day has been subsumed into Memorial Day -- with only two exceptions. The Military Channel devoted the whole day to the Normandy invasion, and if you rose at 5:00 am like I did yesterday, you got to see two memorable C-Span telecasts that conformed to the idea behind "Military History Week."
I hope you'll spare the time to peruse both. First was a lengthy interview with Sebastian Junger, whose book War (sample text here), about the months he spent embedded with the most remote and embattled U.S. units in Afghanistan, represents a timeless narrative of soldiering that connects us to elemental truths about those who fight and die for our country. I urge you to take in the whole interview. Junger is as matter-of-fact as his story is inspiring. The second C-Span gem was a book-tour talk by Victor Davis Hanson about his recent work Father of Us All, challenging modern conventional wisdom about what war is and what it accomplishes and doesn't -- and why. Buried in the middle is a specific reference to the outstandingly detailed planning and yet near-fatal screw-ups of the D-Day invasion that should give pause to all who want to abandon every military campaign the first time it blunders. (There's also a terrifying analysis of the current Iran-nuke situation no one should miss...) See it here.
The value of the larger perspective is twofold. It's about paying our respects to those who gave everything for our freedom, yes, but it's also about the critical importance of knowing enough about our own history to retain perspective on what the role of our politicians and an engaged citizenry should be.
To use the two examples I've offered, Junger demonstrates that war is always about life and death and duty and courage and loyalty, regardless of the technology or rules of engagement adopted. There may be high-tech drones operating via remote control in Afghanistan, but there are also human troops -- our brothers, fathers, and sons -- living in the field under conditions as harsh as any faced by Washington's army at Valley Forge or the 101st Airborne's in the Battle of the Bulge. Hanson explains that colossal errors will always occur, and the test of a nation at war is not the immaculateness of its planning but the ability to respond to the inevitable unanticipated catastrophes. His exemplary recounting of the 85,000 Allied deaths caused by the failure to foresee the dangers posed by Normandy's off-beach hedgerows, after an entirely successful "Mission Accomplished" landing, is directly analogous to the undemolished fence that crippled Pickett's charge at Gettysburg -- and indirectly analogous to the "scandal" of unarmored humvees in Iraq. Throughout history, victors learn from and overcome their mistakes, and losers fail to understand the costs of quitting because events don't go their way as predictably as rational critics think they ought.
Vitally, we also need to recognize that "paying our respects" and "understanding our history" are frequently not complementary but contradictory needs. Our attempt to honor the personal costs of military sacrifice tends to focus on grieving older veterans who make understandable statements in graveyards about the awfulness and inexcusability of war. All of which are true is some absolutely reductive human sense. But when we try to empathize with someone who has been through what we cannot fathom, we are not actually empathizing. We are projecting in the most simplistic and self-serving of ways. They are lamenting the human condition and the particular personal costs they have paid. They are not speaking, in such moments of intense personal emotion, to the equally relevant issue of why they chose to fight in the first place. They had their reasons, and we'd best pay as much attention to those as we do to their grief-stricken platitudes. When we use their grief to claim that all war casualties die in vain, we are the lowest of pimps, whoring heroes for political gain.
FOR EXAMPLE: Watching documentary Discovery Channel footage of 80-year-old Iwo Jima veterans in tears at the memory of the best who were left behind becomes, in this respect, a kind of voyeurism, almost lewd in its objectification for political and philosophical purposes, of their continuing personal agony. Tears about the horrors of war are not the only important thing about them, not even the most important thing about them.
You see, those Iwo Jima veterans are Marines. They volunteered. They won despite the appalling physical and psychological hurts they endured. If, today, they no longer remember or recite the reasons for their service, it's as much a crime to ignore the younger selves who won a savage fight to the death as it is to exploit the piercing sorrows such men feel in their declining years. What gets overlooked is that they did what they did because first and foremost -- the initial cause if you will -- is that they loved their country, families, and way of life enough to (promise in advance they'd) pay the price they have been paying ever since. Would they trade it away, even now, at this late date? No. Because that would mean not having known or been so close to those they continue to mourn and revere and honor with their tears. They would no longer be themselves, and not coincidentally, we would no longer be the selves they suffered and died to give us the freedom to be.
In short, veterans are NOT an argument against war, except for those who trivialize them and their contributions as waste, misguided fools who believed some trickery of their betters to a degree the naysayers do not respect but merely pity. These veterans did not risk so much and lose so much for the purpose of being reduced to an easy argument for appeasement and cowardice in the face of nakedly evil threats. That's guaranteed.
It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."
What did he mean by that? This. War is awful and inexcusable. It is also at times necessary and virtuous. It was necessary and virtuous in 1860. It was necessary and virtuous in 1941. It's been necessary (etc) several times since. It may be necessary and critically virtuous again soon. We can deplore and condemn the need. But we cannot permit ourselves to shrink from meeting the need when it occurs, and we cannot use feigned respect for past sacrificises as an excuse for not fighting the virtuous fights on which our whole moral tradition depends. Rather, we must use memory to retain our fundamental humanity, as our surviving veterans have, even as we learn from the mistakes and incomparable courage and resolve of our forebears.
We can see that the Iwo Jima survivors are men of deep character and moral sensibility. We can also see that in the hour of their testing, they did not relent in the terrible task of destroying the enemy so that he could not survive to strike again at the innocent. Their words in the cemetery may not make the point clearly. But their deeds did.
That's what we must most fiercely remember. And what it seems we are rapidly forgetting. What is 66 years? Added to the age of a typical soldier, it's just beyond a normal human lifespan. Is that really all it takes for us to forget a miraculous example of unselfish courage, sacrifice, character, and love?
Pity the day.