I have only vague memories of wading in the English Channel off of one of the Normandy landing beaches — probably Omaha. As best I remember, it was a warm, sunny day, and the English Channel was like a big, peaceful blue lake with little surf.
As a wide-eyed youth of perhaps 10, I knew the story of D-Day and I viewed being at Normandy and wading in the Pond as a marvelous adventure.
I didn’t quite grasp just how recently World War II had occurred — a scant two decades earlier. Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle were still alive, although I did not then appreciate their significance to history.
At that age I thought of war as heroic and glorious. On and around an American air base in rural northern France, my pals and I played “Army,” pretending to shoot machine guns at German soldiers as we clambered through German bunkers that were, in those days, plentiful and easily accessible.
We read “Sgt. Rock” comics, and we saw shoot-em-up Hollywood movies, with heroic John Wayne or his heroic pals, that depicted World War II as sort of a big Fourth of July fireworks show.
I did not, at that time, understand the significance of the row after row after row after row of white crosses in American military cemeteries.
I am sure I would not have understood the words of a P-47 pilot named Quentin Aanenson, who saw extensive combat against the Germans: “I’ve gambled my life a hundred times so my sons won’t have to go through the same thing …”
Nor would I have grasped Abraham Lincoln’s reference to those who gave “the last full measure of devotion” in combat, such as those who to this day lie beneath the white crosses in American cemeteries in France.
At that same American air base in France, I began learning about another war.
“We’re winning in Vietnam!” I gushed one day after hearing a news broadcast on Armed Forces Radio that claimed the U.S. military had killed a million Communist soldiers that week against three American casualties, or something like that.
The Vietnam war was glorious, and we were winning it, I believed.
The first hint I had that war isn’t fun came sometime in 1967, months after returning to the States. An evening news broadcast showed a North Vietnamese film of captured American flyers being paraded through Hanoi, surrounded by their grim-looking captors.
It didn’t look like the POWs were having fun — especially the pilot who was so badly injured he couldn’t walk, but was half-carried, half-dragged by his captors, unable to even look up. I was probably 12, and I was shocked and downright sickened; I probably thought at that moment that North Vietnam needed to be bombed back to the stone age. Still not a bad thought.
Vietnam went on to give us Hanoi Jane, war protesters, dope-smoking draft dodgers, the defeatist press. No matter what I might have thought about the Vietnam war, had I been of draft age, I can’t see myself as ever being part of that crowd.
Fast forward to the Iraq war. I don’t know if invading Iraq and removing Saddam will ultimately prove to have been the right decision.
It’s easy to espouse a hawkish view when the war at hand doesn’t cost you or your family anything, and you can sit safely in your comfortable living rooms while someone else does the fighting.
Conversely, it’s easy to spout anti-war rhetoric when you and your family can sit safely on your butts while the U.S. military protects your freedom to do so.
No matter what happens in Iraq, I can’t see myself as being part of the pro-surrender, defeat-at-any-cost, Islamic-worshipping crowd of appeasers.
I can’t claim to begin to understand what it means to be a solider and give that last full measure. It’s so easy to forget. I hope I don’t take America and the American soldier for granted.
I like a poem that is widely circulated on the Internet. As best I can tell, it was written by a Father Dennis Edward O’Brien, USMC.
It is the soldier, not the minister who has given us freedom of religion.
It is the soldier, not the reporter who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the soldier, not the poet who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the soldier, not the campus organizer who has given us freedom to protest.
It is the soldier, not the lawyer who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the soldier, not the politician who has given us the right to vote.
It is the soldier who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protester to burn the flag.
Steve Nash writes his column for the Brownwood Bulletin on Thursdays. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.