Then and Now

On Saturday, May 29, President George W. Bush dedicated the much-delayed World War II Memorial on the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. The site is fitting, for both Washington and Lincoln led the nation through wars of national survival.

On Monday, May 31, Memorial Day, the president placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery — an annual rite honoring the nation’s war dead. This week, the commander in chief will travel to Normandy for the 60th anniversary of Operation Overlord — commonly known as “D-Day” — the event that marked the beginning of the end for Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. These three commemorations invite some reflection on the war in which we are now engaged.

Though Memorial Day recognizes those who made the ultimate sacrifice in all our country’s conflicts, most of the focus for the next several months will be on World War II, the 16 million Americans who served and the 400,000 who perished in that bloodiest of struggles. Now, in the midst of another war, the sacrifices of the “Greatest Generation” beg the question: Can we as a nation repeat what those warriors accomplished six decades ago?

There are some similarities between the outbreak of the two wars. For most Americans, our current war for national survival began on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, with the surprise air attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It took the lives of 2,948 Americans. In fact, terrorists declared war on the United States long before that terrible Tuesday. The bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania as well as the terrorist attack on the USS Cole were all acts of war by radical Islamic jihaddists. Unfortunately, they were treated more like bank robberies than acts of war.

In 1941, it wasn’t much different. Despite German, Italian and Japanese aggression on three continents, the American public showed no appetite for war. On Aug. 12, 1941, legislation to create the Selective Service to facilitate military conscription was bitterly debated and passed the House by only one vote. Hitler’s U-boats attacked and sank the U.S. freighter Robin Moor in the summer of 1941 and the USS Reuben James I (DD-245) that autumn. Attacks on both vessels resulted in substantial loss of American lives.

But it wasn’t until the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, that World War II began for most Americans. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s sneak air attack on Pearl Harbor on that “day that will live in infamy” resulted in the death of more than 2,400 of our fellow citizens and awakened a sleeping giant.

There was a rush to recruiting stations following the attacks in 1941 and 2001. But unlike WWII, and contrary to the constant barrage of prison abuse photos on television, America’s challenge in the current war depends less on the valor and perseverance of our modern day warriors than it does on the rest of us.

Today’s soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are every bit as brave and dedicated as their grandfathers. At a median age of 19.5 years, those who make up our military are, on average, six months older than their World War II counterparts. They are all high school graduates and volunteers. They are bigger, better trained and better equipped and employ more sophisticated equipment than any military force in history. They wear 22-pound flak jackets, 5-pound Kevlar helmets and 50-pound packs, and work all day in 100-degree heat.

“Experts” and “leading indicators” suggest these troopers — known as “Generation Y,” or the “video-game generation,” aren’t up to the task of fighting a far-away war in Iraq or Afghanistan. But they are. The problem isn’t with the troops — it’s on the home front.

The news media see the ratings that so-called sex and sleaze reality shows garner and tries to capture that audience by exploiting and sensationalizing a story like the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. That story is still receiving far more attention than it deserves.

And unlike WWII, a Loyal Opposition no longer exists. It is now just a hateful opposition. John Kerry can’t even bring himself to say, “I hope he’s not hurt,” about his president when learning of a bicycle accident. In a bitter speech this week, Al Gore, who defended illegal fund raising and worked for a president who lied to a grand jury, accused President Bush of showing “utter contempt for the rule of law.” After describing Bush as “dishonest,” he declared the president’s closest advisors “incompetent” and called for their resignations.

Pollsters remind us that “public approval” of the president’s handling of the war is less than 50 percent — an all-time low. If such polls were taken in May of 1944 following the disastrous rehearsal at Slapton Sands in which German gun boats sank three U.S. assault ships, killing 749, it’s easy to imagine the headline, “Public opposed to Normandy Invasion.”

Can we win a war in such an environment? It’s unknown — for no modern commander in chief has been so disparaged as this one. It didn’t happen to Wilson in World War I, Roosevelt or Truman in World War II, Truman or Eisenhower in Korea nor with Kennedy, Johnson or Nixon in Vietnam. Many on the Left say that “we support the troops, but not their leader or ??¢â???¬????his’ war.” That’s a false commitment. How can one “support the troops” but not their mission?

Today’s soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Guardsmen, like their WWII predecessors, are good, decent and courageous. They place themselves in harm’s way, forego the comforts of home and the affections of loved ones to protect us and offer others the hope of freedom. On this weekend of commemorations, we should thank God for all those who have been — and those who still are — willing to serve. We should also pray that we are worthy of their sacrifice.