A civilization is won or lost by those who fight to protect it — and judged as deserving by the gratitude offered to its soldiers by those who were saved. Afghanistan and Iraq remind us that there are now Americans in battle in the tradition of 1776, 1864, 1918, or 1944. But are we, the public, still cognizant of their sacrifice as our forefathers once were?
This Veterans Day we should worry that we have not passed to the next generation proper commemoration — or even knowledge — of Saratoga, Shiloh, St. Mihiel, Metz, Chosun, or Hue. In part, the culprit is our own madcap lives. We are so wired with blackberries or glued to play stations, that we don’t inquire much about the fields of white crosses — and their anonymous dead — that each year, for a blink, appear on our Veterans Day television screens.
When in Europe we don’t pay our respects at the American cemetery at Hamm. Indeed, we know an American battle only to the degree it has been the rare topic of a recent film. Thanks to Saving Private Ryan there is still a D-Day among our youth.
Politically correct history has also made us indifferent to the sacrifice of the soldier. The Civil War, we are sometimes told, was not really over slavery anyway. The Great War was unnecessary infighting among European aristocracies. World War II is now as much the Japanese Internment, Rosy the Riveter, and Hiroshima, as saving Europe and Asia from a racist slavery at places like Falaise and Tarawa. Does anyone make the connection between a Samsung television or Kia in our showrooms with the bloody see-saw struggles for Seoul? Why is a Noriega in jail, why are Milosevic and Saddam bad memories, and why are men walking without beards in Kabul?
What American from Tulare or Lansing died for all that — and the larger notion that dictators were to be fought and defeated far away, rather than here at home? Do we still appreciate that our soldiers, so many of whom have perished to keep us free — and yet also freed a defeated enemy as well from a Hitler, or Tojo, or the Taliban — knowing that had they failed our enemies, would not be so magnanimous?
In our sophistication, perhaps too we think we should have evolved beyond war, the nature of man at last changed for good through greater education, affluence, and experience. Commemorating war’s toll, then, for some, may be like recalling cancer — as if the oncologist and soldier alike somehow are tainted by the respective horror of what they must do.
Or is the problem that our military has become so adept — or so small a percentage of the population — that we are only vaguely cognizant of far-off places like Basra, Bosnia, Grenada, Kandahar, Kosovo, Lebanon, Mogadishu, or Panama — battlefields where someone else in the military did something for some apparently necessary reason? Most Americans have little clue whether any of our own died the last twenty years in Panama or were lost in Mogadishu. Or if so, how and why?
We should remember on this Veterans Day that some very young people — with long futures, in the prime of health, and at the center of their families — died for the rest of us. They lost their lives not just for us to watch an OJ outburst in Vegas or American Idol, but for the idea that we — most often not so young, not so hale, and not with such bright futures as our soldiers — could be free at their expense; free, not merely from being conquered or enslaved, but free from the very thought of it.