Tuesday, June 4, 2019

When Heros Were Commonplace

As the seventy-fifth anniversary of D-Day approaches, I think back and sort through the large volume of mental images that I have stored during my lifetime.  They come from movies like "The Longest Day"(1962), which actually had a few actors who had been on the beach at Normandy, but mostly, they are from documentary film that was shot by combat photographers.

Some of the moments they captured are engraved in the American psyche. The one I am thinking of foremost in this regard is of three GIs making their way up the beach past landing obstacles, and one of them is shot and falls to the sand.  We never get to know who it was, or if he survived his wounds, but we have the achingly sad duty of witnessing his sacrifice....again and again.

Much of the film shot on D-Day and in the days and weeks immediately after, is also familiar. There have been countless efforts to either document or to dramatize the experience of invading Hitler's Festung Europa,  Fortress Europe.  One of the most viewed dramas has been, "Saving Private Ryan", with Tom Hanks and Matt Damon.  It is the story of a Ranger captain who was ordered to go find a private in the paratroops whose sibling brothers had all been killed--therefore requiring the army to pull the one remaining brother out of danger. It manages to do a very authentic job of letting the viewer know what these men....there were no 'boys' there.....went through.  And, it is daunting. Another must see series...if you really want to make the effort to understand what these Americans went through....is A Band of Brothers. It is painfully authentic and deeply personal.

In my own mind, I have great difficulty in understanding how much raw courage it took to be one of the men huddled in a landing craft as it approached the beach, machine-gun bullets ricocheting off the ramp, mortar and artillery rounds crashing all around them. I doubt if anybody can understand what they went through without having been there.  And, I wonder how many of today's volunteer soldiers could manage to pull it off....knowing that you might very well be dead in the next few minutes or hours, and still charging down the ramp into the hail of machine-gun fire.

When my wife, Abigail, and I got together--almost 20 years ago now--I soon became aware that her father, Donald Downs, had been in WWII.  What I did not understand immediately was that he went ashore with the 29th Infantry Division on D-Day plus 1, as an infantry platoon sergeant. I learned that Don had only been in France for about thirty days before a German sniper shot his arm off and he was evacuated.  I knew that he died at age 59, of complications from cirrhosis and had been a very unhappy soul up until his death.

What I did NOT know at first, was that in those thirty days, Sergeant First Class Donald Downs, had been awarded two Bronze Stars and one Silver Star for his actions under fire. The father-in-law I could never know was not merely a hero, he was on track to be another Audie Murphy, the most decorated GI in WWII.

I eventually was able to obtain and read the citation for his Silver Star.  During a fire-fight in the bocage--the hedgerows behind Normandy Beach--Donald had picked-up a BAR, (a 19 lb. automatic rifle with a 20 round magazine capacity), and assaulted a German machine-gun nest, killing the Germans inside and moving on from there.  It wasn't his BAR,. but that of a dead platoon-mate, also apparently from Martha's Vinyard.  Donald had realized that something needed to be done because if they remained pinned-down the entire platoon would be chewed away to nothing, sooner than later.  So, he did what he knew needed to be done.

That, by any measure, is heroism on an extraordinary level.  But, the thing is, this was happening all over the hedgerow country and in the towns...everywhere within dozens of miles.  American, Canadian and British soldiers were acting out the same scenario with only the details being different.  It's not unreasonable to posit that the invasion could actually have failed and become a rout if this indomitable spirit of self-sacrifice was not as prevalent as it was. After Iwo Jima, Chester Nimitz was quoted as saying that "...uncommon valor was a common virtue", but this applies to so many battles in that and other wars.  The American soldier, sailor, marine has demonstrated again and again that otherwise ordinary men will rise to the occasion....even when it means they are very likely to be killed for doing so.

In the battle for Normandy, there were approximately 209,000 Allied casualties, and almost 37,000 of those were KIA.  Another 16,000 approximately were killed in the air war. German casualty figures were likewise astronomical: approx. 200,000, wounded, missing and killed.  It was a blood-bath and was followed by weeks and then months of heavy combat as the Allies closed off the Falaise pocket and fought across France.

A few years ago, I was speaking with a woman who mentioned Memorial Day with some disgust.  Her words were something along the lines of, "I don't see why we should honor war.  It's a despicable thing that we do to each other."  And, I could not keep my mouth shut. I said, "It is not war that is being honored. It is the bravery and the ultimate sacrifice that generation after generation has made....so that we can choose how to live our lives in Freedom."  She got it at that point.

So, here's the kicker:  now we find our dear republic in dire times, and the freedom that not only the WWII generation fought and died for, but almost every generation since the Revolutionary War has fought for....is now endangered.  If  "Old Bone Spurs", Donald J. Trump, manages to steal another term in the White House, his fantasy of becoming King for Life will be within reach.  True.

He will have all the opportunity he needs to finish engineering the Supreme Court and much of the entire federal judiciary, and his slimy colleagues, like Mitch McConnell, will ramp-up their assault against decency, the lower classes and even American institutions like the Constitution.  Don't think so?  Wake up.  As of this writing, a majority--37 is the number I have heard most recently--of states are on track to support a constitutional convention......the purpose of which would be to slam through a new version of it, one that would abrogate and otherwise render impotent many of the rights guaranteed in the original one. The New Constitution would be the top .01%'s final and complete permission to finish looting the underclasses, and destroy the environment as they do it. It will seal the doom of a prosperous society where fairness and compassion have been held aloft as ideals....and they will be traded for self-interest and the dispassionate destruction of the planet as the pursuit of unimaginable wealth takes over completely.

The oligarchs will have their way....if we remain apathetic and decline to vote.  I am not making this up...our democracy is in greater danger than it has ever been, with the notable exception, perhaps, of the Civil War.

Time to Wake Up America.

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