Today is the 70th anniversary of D-Day. 70 years ago, over 100,000 men headed to a very uncertain fate in northern France. Many didn’t know exactly why they were there, other than a sense of duty and honor. It was only towards the end of the war, and after, that most people began to find out the horrors being perpetrated against civilians by the Nazi regime (and also by the Japanese in the Asia-Pacific theater). Many people now think that the Nazis only executed people with Jewish ancestry, but the concentration camps also included Roma (gypsies), people of color, people with handicaps, and more. They also carried out atrocities against civilians who simply lived in territory they occupied — the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane in France being one of the worst. The motives of the Nazis were more than anti-religious. We should be so thankful for the bravery of those who brought their activities to an end.
Of course, we now have the terribly misguided — and sometimes evil — people who deny that that genocide and atrocities occurred. As more from that time pass away with time, we have fewer witnesses to proclaim the truth from first hand experience. Worse, there are those who would happily undertake such “cleansing” today, given the chance.
My father was one of many thousands who enlisted in the Army during the war because of a sense of duty. He had a deferment, but gave it up because he saw married men being drafted, and he felt it was important he went to maybe help keep one of them at home. Those in uniform came from all walks of life, for a variety of reasons. Many never made it home, and Memorial Day, a little more than a week past, is one special day on which we remember those who fell on the field of battle.
My father didn’t talk about most of the things he saw and did in Europe, for nearly 50 years after his return. He was one of the first into some of the concentration camps, and the images and memories were undoubtedly haunting. It took him decades to be able to talk about it. Post traumatic stress was not a term for WWII vets. I have heard a first hand account of some of the horrors. I have no doubts, and events in more recent times and other places have reinforced that organized evil can spring up almost anywhere.
My uncle served in the far east, in Korea and China. I never heard stories from him, but I know he had them too. All the vets who served did. Atrocities were not limited to Europe alone.
Over the years the US has been involved in other conflicts, some of which seemed to serve high principle — such as protecting the South Koreans, stopping some of the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, driving the Iraqis out of Kuwait — and others, of murkier goals and results (e.g., Vietnam, Iraq).
We have a generation for whom world war has no connection to their lives, who don’t really know about the horror of genocide, and who are largely distant from the military. They don’t understand the sacrifices made to allow them the comforts they have now, or the dangers that could arise in a very short time. They complain about the activities of the NSA, and don’t have the context to understand the horrors that could take us by surprise without some vigilance. Given the genocide of two short generations ago, and more recent actions such as at Tiananmen Square and in Georgia and Crimea, is it that inconceivable that some monitoring of German communications, and those of China, Russia, and others is being undertaken?
War is unfortunate. It is cruel. It is wasteful. It hurts many. Yet, sometimes, leaders of countries and groups are intent on forcing great hurt on others, and there is no other way to get them to relent except by force. Usually, it is an attempt to impose religion on others — such as the Boko Haram are doing now in Nigeria, and the Taliban have been trying to do in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Sometimes it is simply a grab at power or resources: that we could transition from the Sochi Olympics to the occupation of Crimea in a matter of months shows some of the volatility in the world, and the potential for conflict.
Unfortunately, we also see it with extremists inside our own country, who want to impose their religious views — to force women to have children and live second-class lives, to deprive minorities of the vote on the pretext of preventing voter fraud, preventing people who love each other from getting married, and more — all in the name of their narrow religious views (and fears). We can’t invade our own country — force is not the option here. But we should not idly let that behavior occur without resistance.
Our best hope of avoiding future wars is to remember the wars we have had, and the losses we sustained (on all sides) when those occurred. We should honor those who voluntarily took up arms to protect ideals we cherish, whether they returned or not.
One of the best ways to prevent some of these future wars is to honor the very principles those people sought to protect. We should honor and protect our freedoms. That means educating ourselves about issues, and actually voting in elections based on that education. It means really respecting fundamental rights and acting against those who deny to others what we cherish for ourselves — ability to make personal choices about our bodies, ability to love (and marry, if we choose) others freely, ability to vote, and more. We should respect the freedoms of speech and of press, and the rights to be secure in our homes and privacy. That means pushing back on the agencies and politicians behind them who use fear as a justification to intrude too deeply into our lives and keep fundamental information away from us.
The greatest way to honor those who served 70 years ago is to not be complacent about the world, and to never forget what their sacrifice and bravery were all about.