Thursday, October 4, 2007

If we had to, could we do it today?

It's been a few days since I wrote. I've been feeling kind of low since Jimmy and the other boys at the malt shop made fun of my shoes. I don't know why Janice needs to be so mean. After all, she---WAIT a minute. That's my diary entry from October 1955, not my blog post. Sometimes I forget which decade I'm writing in. Hang on there...I know I've got 2007 right here somwhere...OK, all set. Let's go.

I am one of millions who are watching Ken Burns' latest documentary The War. Goes without saying that it is another masterwork, like Baseball and The Civil War. Burns is a special story teller. You've got to love a guy who makes 15 hour film projects that take seven years. (Took him longer to make the film than it took Hitler to conquer, and lose, the free world.)

I'm a believer in regular review of key moments in history. Since we're always trying to make sense of the present-day world, it's worthwhile to touch base with the past and recognize when we made good decisions and when we screwed up. That way maybe we'll recognize the key moment when it comes up next time. In that light, it is astonishing to consider that we (us Americans) let that war go so far and did not get involved. (My dad - that's him in Germany in 1945 - enlisted in September of 1939, shortly after the Nazis took Poland. He could see what was coming. And like a lot of guys, he didn't have a job, so what the hell.) I know we were still smarting from our losses in WW1, a war that a lot of people thought we did not need to join, and there was a strong sentiment to let Europe deal with its own problems. But for crying out loud - we let Hitler run wild for four or five years, and Japan the same, and in the long run our reluctance to get involved just made it that much harder and more costly when we finally did get down to business. Give that some thought the next time the topic of "pre-emption" comes up.

It is a challenge, from the perspective of our cushy American life today, to imagine what life was like for those who fought that war. You can read history to say we could have never lost in the long run, that our industrial capacity would win in the end - or that our indomitable American spirit was destined to prevail. But I think the truth is in a gray area. Take away some specific individuals, change the luck in some specific battles, and who knows what the result might have been.

Above it all, what boggles the mind is the selflessness that was required for millions of men and women to put their lives on the line for the cause. More than that, for so many to willingly go into battle zones where they knew there was a good chance they would not survive. For those who were there, perhaps there really was no choice. You hear the veterans and those who sacrificed on the home front say "it was something that had to be done." (My mom - that's her on the homefront in '44 or '45 with her firstborn and Grandma Sallie - taught us all about "doing what you have to do.") This attitude is so foreign to our American life today. There doesn't seem to be anything that simply "has to be done." We are so spoiled and so accustomed to having everything just the way we want it every day, if there was a true need would we remember how to sacrifice for the common good? I like to think we still have the capacity to do things that "have to be done" but it's been so long since we had a unified sense of purpose, I wonder if our national will has atrophied.

I learned some things watching The War. Like why my mom always kept a coffee can on the stove and put leftover bacon grease in it. It wasn't just a convenience for the next fried egg, I think it was a habit from the war, recycling the fat for the glycerin to make bombs. And I learned that the concept of the "butterfly effect" is very real. It would have only taken one bullet in the Rhineland - or for that matter, a munitions accident or an overturned truck - and my dad would not have survived, and I wouldn't be here, and my kids wouldn't be here, and their kids wouldn't be here. Think of all the families that lost not only their "today," but their "tomorrow," too, in that war...

I'm recording all 15 hours of The War. If I get to feeling sorry for myself and thinking I don't have anything to be thankful for, I've got the antidote.


Scott said...

I'm glad you got off your butt and did what had to be done, even if it was 5 a.m. Don't feel like you have to go digging through the Martin National Archives every morning to finish a blog entry. Just a little blurb about the fact that The War is on and that Ken Burns is awesome would have been sufficed if it meant that you hit the driving range and worked on your putting.

I didn't even know The War was on PBS until he made an appearance on The Daily Show. Shows you where my priorities are.

And yes, I have been TiVoing them myself. Four hours at a chunk though means that The Girls Next Door and SpoongeBob are having to take a backseat.

Did you catch the scene where the German guy who was captured knew all about that American soldier's little hometown and the creek that ran through it? Meaning that Hitler had already planned on conquering the US and doling out certain areas to a particular Nazi soldier. Goosebumps.

And yes, with a son who just returned from Iraq, I can only image how many parallels you are drawing. I remember something from high school about those who don't learn from the past are doomed to repeat the same failures.

I'm thankful we have such world-class historians as David Mc Cullough who can bring to life stories of our forefathers. And I'm thankful for people like Nate who are willing to fight for our country.

Now if we can just turn this country around, encourage some forward-thinking entrepreneurs and business leaders and politicians to bring this country back to its world-leading status.

hillbilly deluxe said...

Its good stuff, Barry, my man. As Newt Gingrich points out: In a 4-5 year span America toppled Imperialist Japan, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany. Today, it takes 20 years to add a runway to Hartsfield International Airport. My grandfather, like many American men, signed up for the war. They didn't join during peacetime hoping for a college degree. They knew there was a war on, America needed them, so they dropped what they were doing and signed the hell up. It wasn't about Democrats and Republicans. It was about America.
Keep the faith!