Many of you know I had the singular privilege to embark on the pilgrimage of a lifetime in June 2004 when I journeyed to the beaches of Normandy to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Many more have inquired about the specifics of that event – something I’ve mentioned in passing in several commentaries posted on this site, and which, I must admit, has profoundly impacted my entire outlook on the totality of life in America today. Politics, culture, media, faith, you name it. Every aspect of domestic life has been colored by this personal journey that has forever divided life into what came before and what comes after. It is the main tale I have to tell, and doubtless contains an unprecedented level of verbosity from a contributor who has been justifiably accused of having a terminal case of diarrhea of the word processor.
But, with Memorial Day just around the corner, it seems like an appropriate time to dust off my penchant for sentimentality and wax nostalgic for a bygone era that for one amazing month came alive with indescribable brilliance.
And it does have a contemporary application. You simply have to wade through all this preliminary glop to get to it. So, pull up a comfortable chair. You may be here awhile, I’m warning you. And forgive me for burning up the bandwidth, but there’s no way to explain my outlook on things without telling the tale that formed the paradigm which filters my perspective on just about everything.
The seed was planted forty years before the crop actually sprung – in June 1964 – when Walter Cronkite hosted a CBS News special in which Dwight D. Eisenhower returned to Normandy. It was D+ 20 years. The young boy I was sat in front of the black and white console television in our living room, riveted, captivated, fascinated as the former supreme commander and retired president walked the quiet, deserted length of Omaha Beach, reflecting back on that crucial time in history.
It was the latest in a series of events which, up to that time, sparked the fire of my imagination. To walk the beaches of Normandy . . . What would that be like? How would it feel? What could I possibly take away from such an experience? Deep thoughts for a twelve-year-old boy who was yet to see his first razor blade.
My desire was made all the more intense because I am an historian at heart, if not by profession (and was, even then), and the son of a WWII paratrooper who jumped into France on that crucial morning in 1944. My personal situation was exacerbated early in life by two events which poured fuel on the fire of my curiosity: My father – like so many veterans of that momentous conflict – volunteered nothing about his wartime experience (and to press him on that point was to risk an angry explosion of volcanic proportions). The other life-altering event was his death when I was little more than a toddler, taking to his grave any enlightenment from the war years he might have imparted to me. How can I explain those times? The 1950s was the last masculine decade of the century – a time when smoking was not only manly, but good for you. Thirty years of inhaling unfiltered Camels finally caught up with him in the form of a massive heart attack. At a time when his son was just coming to an age of awareness, he was busy exiting stage right.
But his absence only made the journey inevitable. I won’t detail all the factors that precluded my attendance during a commemorative year for the rest of the 20th century. Let’s just say that in 1974, ‘84 and ‘94, there was always some crucial life event going on that took precedence over a trip to Europe. It was in 2004 that the planets aligned, and the doors swung open.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but if I set a goal for myself, it often morphs into a multi-faceted quest. When that happens, I always end up fantasizing about what the mountaintop will look like when the dream ultimately becomes reality. It was no different with this forty-year sojourn down the yellow brick road to Normandy. But when it finally came, the actual event was off-the-charts spectacular beyond my wildest fantasies. I could not have written a script as amazing as the real thing. And the view from the top of that mountain was a summit-of-Everest experience.
Prior to my departure, the tour group I signed on with made a point of calling all the people who committed to go (that is, who actually paid the non-refundable deposit) and interviewed them by phone. The questions were basic: Who were we? What was our interest? What did we want to see? Things like that. Who’d a thunk it, huh? Asking your customers what they want and then giving it to them. What a novel concept. Only the poor girl who called me got two hours of non-stop excitement. Son of a U.S. paratrooper . . . Second generation airborne . . . Father died young, taking his secrets of the war to the grave with him . . . Walking in my father’s footsteps. I poured out an endless litany of intensity over the phone and probably left her with a cauliflower ear that lasted at least a week before I was through.
Apparently word got around the tour group about this maniac from California who carried on like a bipolar nutjob, definitely off his meds, no doubt in the throes of a manic episode when the subject of Normandy came up. A few days later I got a call from the director who thanked me for my input, was impressed by my knowledge, interest and enthusiasm, and oh, by the way, would I care to give keynote address at our farewell banquet to honor the greatest generation? This was scheduled for our final night in Normandy after eight days of visiting the many battle sites in the area. The tour would continue beyond Normandy – and I would go along to its bittersweet conclusion – but many of our fellow tourists would be departing the next morning, and it would be our last night together as an extended group.
My first thought was . . . What? Steven Spielberg isn’t available? Actually, it turned out he was, but then my services came at a better price. All the same, I patiently explained that I was not a public speaker, got panicky in front of crowds, was not articulate, and had nothing to offer a room full of historical icons – Richard Winters, Bill Guarnere, Babe Heffron, Walt Ehlers, just to name a few. All of them (and more) were expected to be in attendance for the Normandy leg of our tour and the banquet on the final night. Not all showed up. But enough made the trip to qualify the audience as a Who’s Who of WWII. So, it was impossible. Didn’t he understand? It was quite out of the question. And when I finished my logical, dispassionate explanation about why I was not qualified for such an honor, I told him of course I would do it. How could I say no to such an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?
That left me with the new dilemma of what I was going to talk about. It occurred to me I had the same problem I had as a kid. Everything I knew came from secondary sources. For my father, the war was a topic verboten. Case closed. The other men in the extended family weren’t quite so hard-nosed about it. But, at the same time, they managed to grumble through the minefield of what-did-you-do-in-the-war-Daddy? without giving away much. And when they did address their war service, it was always in vague generalities. Not once did they talk about anything specific.
So I had a problem. Not to worry. I called up some old childhood friends. Guess what? None of their fathers spoke about their wartime experience either. How could I have forgotten how things were in those days? Even though I was fatherless, the procedure was the same in every household I was acquainted with. My buddies and I would be playing basketball on the driveway after school. Around 5:30 the station wagon pulled in, honking its horn for us to get out of the way and barely slowing down. Dad got out of the car. His son would ask him how his day was. Dad would grunt and go into the house. About ten minutes later, Mom would come out, declare the basketball game to be over, admonish us that we had to be quiet, because they were having dinner soon and “Your father is very tired and does not want to be bothered.”
Dad does not want to be bothered. It was the postwar battle cry of the greatest generation.
So all my friends had a different version of the same story. My father was a locked vault when it came to the war. He was also gone forever. Theirs went off to work, came home at the end of the day, handed a paycheck over to their wives every two weeks, and otherwise adjourned for the evening. Nobody I grew up with pressed their fathers about their wartime experience. As the veterans of WWII entered their prime leadership years, most – at least in my experience – were brooding, reserved, withdrawn men with hair trigger tempers, and their children provoked them at their peril. So, rather than risk the wrath of the belt buckle, we learned what we could from other sources – movies, television, books and documentaries.
Even without first hand accounts, I came up with something. My speech was based on II Timothy 4:7 and I won’t recount it here. I did explain to the tour director that I could not give an address as momentous as this one, in such a setting, without referencing the Bible and doing it often. The reasons should be self-evident, I explained. He agreed, but admonished me that such a speech might not be universally well-received due to the diversity of a group as large as this one. As it turned it, my biblical approach paid dividends I could not have imagined in the wildest flights of fancy of my imagination. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
And if it wasn’t enough, the tour director also informed me that there was also going to be a commemorative parachute jump into Normandy during that celebratory week. Since I was an airborne veteran myself, would I care to participate? Provided, of course, I could pass the security checks, the physical requirements, and sign the appropriate release forms. Again, how could I say no? How many U.S. paratroopers can say their last jump was into Normandy?
So, after six months of composition, preparation, mock speeches in front of the bathroom mirror, physical training, and five (more) static line jumps to resurrect my (honorary) airborne status (with full mock WWII combat gear at the creaking old age of 52), I found myself on a flight from LAX to London on the evening of May 30, 2004 – in the middle of Memorial Day weekend. Fitting, if I do say so myself. I was gone for an entire month. And life would never be the same thereafter.
The next two and a half weeks were spent on tour with a group numbering some 1500 people at its peak, in a cauldron of non-stop intensity. Joanie can testify to my state of mind, as she was among the few recipients of the emails I sent home that described events as they unfolded. They’re still on my email server. Every now and then, I review them and am once again reminded of the altered state of awareness I was in at the time. Every day was filled with a fire in the soul, for all of us. Every site took on an amazing level of significance. Every day, it was like getting burned up from the inside out, as all of us realized – to one degree or another – that we were witnessing the greatest men our country ever produced, at the site of their greatest triumph, as they gathered for their last look back on their way into the sunset. Such a powerful moment of seminal poignancy was like plugging in to some spiritual power source and getting a full charge like a battery on overload.
Those of you who’ve had such experiences know what I’m talking about. Those who have not, I recommend it, at least once. But be very careful. The resultant high will supplant any drug you can imagine. And remember, fire burns and fire consumes. There can be heavy consequences on the down side of things.
Some stops along the way:
- The airborne staging area at Aldbourne, Ramsbury and Upottery, England.
- The amphibious port of embarkation at Portsmouth.
- Omaha Beach, Utah Beach, Pointe du Hoc.
- Carentan, Ste. Mere-Eglisé, Brécourt Manor.
- Pegasus Bridge, the American Cemetery in Normandy, La Roche Guyon.
- Arnhem, Eindhoven, and Nijmegen as part of the airborne assault into Holland.
- Noville, Foy, Malmédy and Bastogne, Belgium.
- Dachau, Berchtesgarten, the Eagle’s Nest and Zell Am See, Austria.
If that wasn’t enough, at the end of the organized tour, I took a little side trip on my own to Krakow, Poland. I did this for two reasons. First, my people are from there. Both sets of grandparents embarked from Krakow as children – unbeknownst to any of them at the time – during the period from the late 19th to the early 20th century to come to America. Not to suck its resources dry or recreate Polish culture in some multicultural nirvana. They came because America meant a better life, built on the twin foundations of opportunity and hope – a life in which they could thrive and contribute. They came to live free from the bondage of oppression, released from the shadow of constant fear. They came to become Americans. It was a different time in those days, with different sensibilities. They came to build up, not tear down.
In the words of my aging grandmother, when, as a toddler many years before, I asked her about “The Old Country”, she simply replied, “If it was so good back there, I never would have come here.” ‘Nuff said.
There was a second reason for this particular side trip, as well. Forty miles west of Krakow is a sleepy little town called Oswiecím. It was home to a Polish Army base in the 1930s. It was occupied by the German Army shortly after the Polish government capitulated in October 1939 following the German invasion. The base was turned over to the SS. Its bastardized German name was Auschwitz.
If I was to embark upon an expedition of this magnitude – to walk with the men who served so faithfully and at so great a cost to liberate the continent of Europe – I had to see the worst of what they were sent over there to destroy. And even though no American liberated the Auschwitz death camp, every American who fired a shot in anger contributed to its destruction.
Coming out of my visit to that dark, terrible place, men like
Shifty Powers, Buck Taylor, Paul Rogers, Earl McClung and Jack Agnew became more than just aging veterans engaged in their last sunset look back at the defining moment of their lives. They took on even greater significance than men caught up in a tidal wave of history, serving with commitment and dedication in calamitous circumstances. They became giants of history, crusaders in a righteous cause, destroyers of darkness, defenders of civilization. They truly were the lions in winter.
After combing the stark, hopeless corners of Auschwitz/Birkenau, the journey still had not reached its consummation. From there I traveled to Israel where I spent a final, exhausted week in the center of God’s own piece of real estate, where His name – not to mention His reputation – is still at stake, and His plan is moving forward.
From Auschwitz to Jerusalem in one day. From the heart of darkness to the center of hope overnight. It had its own peculiar brand of culture shock. The disorientation was palpable. But it was an essential component of an experience that took on a transcendent level of meaning, supplanting the already rich significance of an historical pilgrimage of unprecedented personal import. It became a voyage into the depths of the human soul and exposed the heart of the human condition – shining a harsh light on the heights of nobility and the depths of darkness humanity can reach.
Thirty days. Nine countries. Then home. Now I ask you: After such a life-altering epiphany, how does one go back to his Dilbertesque cubicle and wait for yet another pink slip at the hands of yet another bootlicking, management lackey? Fortunately (or not so fortunately) that decision was made for me.
Hard times hit me well in advance of the latest round of economic hardships. My career in software development left the building for India long before I ever departed for Normandy. My latest job as a project manager for a major payroll service went sailing off on the road to Mandalay a year before I left for Europe. But the severance was so generous – up to two years of salary and benefits continuance – and the bonus so lucrative, that I was able to take a year off (while performing a nominal job search) and plan the journey of a lifetime.
Ah, the olden, golden days of high tech heroes. Those days will never come again. A civilization gone with the wind, to steal a line from Margaret Mitchell.
Coming home, and not too proud to do the jobs Americans won’t do, I discovered Americans are not allowed to do those jobs unless they habla Espanól, at least not around these parts. Well, I definitely don’t habla no Espanól, so that problem was solved before it even began. So the cork was out of the bottle and the genie had escaped when it came to pounding my obsolete square peg into the globalist round hole of today’s working landscape, caught between the irresistable force of offshoring of white collar professional work and the immovable object of insourcing of cheap, foreign wage slaves. But I’m not complaining (much). I knew gallivanting off to Europe was a roll of the dice, and when we take adult risks, we must be prepared to deal with adult consequences. Considering the dividends I reaped in personal enrichment, appreciation of the contributions of the extraordinary group of Americans who stood that test of fire, and the place of America in the history of the world during that dark period, it was well worth the investment, no matter what the cost.
That’s all well and good, but it begged the question of just how was I going to eek out a living until the good times started to roll again. That is . . . if they ever started to roll again. And thereby hangs another tale. (Ah, we’re approaching the point to this screed at last!)
After a year of listening to my endless prattle about the significance of this experience – something I was bursting to get off my chest, and never missed an opportunity to do – our men’s ministry leader at church suggested I give a talk about it to our Wednesday night Bible study. We were taking a two-week hiatus between our fall/winter study in John’s gospel and our summer study in Ephesians at the time. He thought it would be of great value to put together a brief slide presentation along with my commentary about the significance of what went on over there a year before.
My question was simple: What for? In the previous year, I learned the bitter lesson that the country didn’t care about the sacrifice of its citizens with the world on the line; it means nothing to the current generation of young people now fast approaching adulthood, and why would anyone in the men’s ministry care about what I did on my summer vacation? Well, this man saw greater value in such a presentation than I did. And he valued it in ways I didn’t, regardless of how close it was to my heart. And the timing was right, because it was coming up on Memorial Day. So I picked 150 slides out of some 1100 I took on the journey, and put together a narrative that lasted a about an hour and a half.
It was a triumph. Forty men or more sat riveted to their chairs. For weeks afterward, the word spread throughout the congregation. People came up and told me how much their husband/brother/father appreciated the presentation and how much they would like to see it themselves. Then a strange thing happened.
Word began to spread outside the community.
Since that time, I’ve spoken at churches and civic groups around the area: the Long Beach Convention Center, Cypress Church, the Naval Base in San Diego, among others, and the presentation that gave me the most satisfaction, the Camp Pendleton Marine Base in Oceanside, CA.
Some themes covered during the course of the presentation:
- The importance of fathers in the lives of their children. I thought I would be one of a handful of orphaned children yearning to walk in their father’s footsteps. I was but one of thousands. The only difference was my father was dead in the grave. My fellow pilgrims had a different problem. Theirs was asleep on the couch. I talk about the hole in the hearts of children that develops when their fathers are missing in action. The middle-aged baby boomer children, many of whom walked arm-in-arm with their aging fathers on the beaches of Normandy, aching to hear how the war affected them stood as a mute testament to this timeless truth. Children crave to know their fathers. And I realized that more than a desire to know our fathers’ war records was a yearning to know them as men, and the events that shaped them into the men they became. The war was just the cauldron in which their character was forged. So it was with all who sought their fathers on the battlefields of Europe. And so it is with the general truth – Men who play an active, loving role in the formative years of their children raise up strong, capable adults. Those who do not leave behind useless, broken cripples. For all the evidence gleaned on the beaches of Normandy, I speak with the voice of experience as well.
- The power of forgiveness. Reconciliation broke out between estranged fathers and alienated children in profound ways during that incendiary week in Normandy. Entire families healed wounds of disaffection that had festered for decades. Children forgave fathers whose only concern, in their arrogance and complacency was to provide a paycheck and otherwise not be bothered. Fathers forgave children for their contempt, disrespect and rebellion as the fallout from the generational collision of the 1960s echoed down through the decades. During my speeches of the last few years, I speak of how the power of the Holy Spirit can be unleashed in spectacular fashion when we forgive with a repentant, loving heart. Wounds were healed, families restored, and love, respect and admiration reigned triumphant across the Normandy battlefields during that miraculous week.
- The resilience of evil. Part of the presentation deals with my experience of walking the dark expanse of Auschwitz/Birkenau. The site exists beyond the grace of God. The ground itself is cursed. There is no forgiveness there, no mercy, no compassion, no hope. It is Satan’s home ground. His spirit is alive there, malevolent, oppressive, and filled with hate. He is empowered there. To this day. We can all agree the devil was defeated once and for all at the Cross. But walking through those killing fields, one can only be filled with the somber certainty that the devil can still do a lot of damage on the way down. II Peter 5:8 resonated during my time is this forlorn, lamented place. And if any of us need to be reminded of how Satan roars like a lion and his capacity to devour and destroy, just walk the grounds of that camp. It is a monument to the nihilism of destruction for its own sake. There is no more effective way to drive the point home than to walk its silent, ominous landscape.
- The faithfulness of the greatest generation. God raised up the children of the Depression to become His army of righteousness. And He empowered them to destroy the most fearsome war machine the world has ever known. Americans crossed beaches all over the world to accomplish this, and paid a ghastly price in blood to achieve it. And they did it again and again. One tour guide spoke of Omaha Beach and how it was taken simply because thousands of Americans were willing to die for it. It was true in Normandy, and it was true all over the world. North Africa, Sicily, Salerno, Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, the list goes on and on. Why? Because the children of the Depression knew the weight of responsibility for this task fell squarely on their shoulders. They did not shirk this burden, were faithful to God’s calling and were empowered by Him to accomplish the mission. Every veteran, when asked how they accomplished what they did, had a different version of the same answer – by God’s grace.
- Saving Private Weinmann. He was a nondescript man. Short, round, white-haired with a bushy moustache. He was someone you would never notice in a crowd. And during our first week on tour, I couldn’t recall seeing him. He approached me after my speech, and introduced himself. He was curious about some of the Scripture passages I mentioned and had many questions about salvation by grace through faith. His name was Morris Weinmann, and he was Jewish. We spent our final ten days on tour together. I got a ground-pounder’s eye view of the crusade in Europe. He got the short version of God’s gift of grace and salvation in the shed blood of His Son.
Morris Weinmann landed with the 4th Division at Utah Beach, and fought all across Europe with the infantry. After ten months of hard fighting, he spent two weeks in the Dachau concentration camp as part of the relief effort, with no advance warning, no preparation, no hint of what to expect there and no 60-year perspective of Holocaust history that all of us enjoy today. And he experienced all this at age 20. Coming out of his time in the camp, his tenuous grip on civilization was shaken to its core. Under orders to take out a patrol and find those responsible for the camp and bring them back under arrest, he committed murder, against innocent civilians. He executed three little girls in a fit of rage, for revenge, in front of their mother.
I relate the horrific effect of all-out, non-stop combat on the psyche of soldiers in general, and this one in particular; of how the veneer of civilization gets eroded, just so men can cope with the madness of the nether world of war. I speak of its dehumanizing effect on them, of the barbarian toll it takes on their soul. I describe how men can lose their grip on their sanity when confronted with the reality of murder on a scale so huge, they can’t digest it without being poisoned by its madness. I talk about this man’s tortured confession in a Berchtesgarten hofbrau – a confession he had never offered to anyone prior to that moment. I speak of his despair after a lifetime of good works failed to atone for his sins and by his own admission, how, at age 80, he realized there was no act of contrition he could perform, no selfless deed of service he could offer, no sacrificial gesture he could make to set things right. I relate how he was convinced he would never be able to look God in the face. I talk about our discussion of the Gospel, and how God sent a perfect atonement in the person of His Son, for just such a situation as his. And I talk about how, after an anguished, sixty-year odyssey, he found absolution in the shed blood of Jesus Christ three months before his death in September 2004. The object lesson of which is that there is no sin so heinous that cannot be washed clean by the blood of Christ. Well, all but one, but this is not the venue to go there.
During the past three years, it’s become something of a cottage industry, and certainly has served to ease the blow of watching myself slowly become extinct. When contending with the stark unpleasant truth that I’m too old, too white, too straight, too male and way too native born to earn a living doing anything, an amusing pastime like public speaking serves as a worthy distraction. And a few dollars here, a few dollars there, it all adds up and never hurts. But, it’s not the stuff of which careers are made. And certainly not at this late stage of life.
How does the saying go? All good things . . . ? And so, shortly after the holidays last December, it became clear that the Holy Spirit – if He ever made an appearance during my brief speaking career – had left the building. Bookings fell off; audiences became less captivated; and the sense I got was that the whole phenomenon had lived its tortured life and died its fruitless death, and it was time to give up the ghost and move on. So ended my impromptu speaking career. Or so I thought.
About the first of February, I was approached by one of our ministry leaders at church about doing the presentation for the high school group. The young man who suggested this is a dynamic, up-and-coming attorney in his early 30s. His testimony reads like all of ours should. He came from a prosperous (although not wealthy) middle class upbringing, grew up in a stable home with an active, loving father, a nurturing mother, and no senseless tragedies to overcome. You won’t hear about drug, alcohol or wild sex parties as part of his experience. He got a solid foundation at home, grew into a dedicated, hard-working student at school, made the most of his education, and is currently reaping the fruits of his labors. He is bright, insightful, humble and caring. He is someone I would be proud to have for a son.
I patiently explained to him that I was retired from public speaking. In fact, as far as gifts of the Spirit are concerned, my sense was whatever gifts I have, God didn’t want me to use. Go figure. But that was the message I received loud and clear at the end of last year. So . . . no more speaking, no more writing (and you can see how well that’s worked out, now can’t you) and no more teaching. Furthermore, my presentation is on the intense side. If nothing else, it carries an adult-oriented, hard-hitting slant and deals with the harsh realities of combat, alienation, killing, murder and revenge. It also touches on reconciliation, forgiveness and absolution. I didn’t quite see what the appeal would be for a group of high school students whose biggest concern is being able to borrow Dad’s Porsche on Friday night to cruise chicks at the local open-air mall.
But my young friend was persistent. He saw value in it for its own sake. He was particularly interested in creating some kind of mentoring relationship between the men’s ministry and the high school group. I told him there was such a concept – it was called discipleship, and it didn’t require my presentation to put it into effect. But discipleship won’t work if the main focus of any church is to not offend anyone, rather than preaching God’s Word, boldly, powerfully, and letting the chips fall where they may. And if our church has a priorities list, preaching the full counsel of God appears to possess a very low order of urgency. The main idea is to send ‘em out the door feeling good about themselves, and they’ll be back (hopefully with extremely large donor checks in hand). That approach hasn’t worked out exactly as planned, at least not so far. But the process is still underway, and the commitment to it remains strong.
During the course of our discussions, I summarized the main points I covered during my talk, outlined above. My attorney friend took notes with interest, peppered me with occasional questions, and when we were done, a puzzled look crossed his face.
One the topic of the Jewish war veteran who murdered the three little girls, he remarked, “I’m a little confused on one point. Exactly why did he do it?”
I sat there, dumbfounded. My God, he doesn’t get it, I thought.
Morris Weinmann and I engaged in a great many substantive conversations during our brief time together. I had many questions for him, as well. As close as I was to the experience of fighting men in WWII, there were places I could not go, and things I could not comprehend. There was a line drawn in the sand between the veterans themselves and their most ardent admirers. And that line could not be crossed, regardless of the enthusiasm of those who didn’t stand the test of fire these aging, old soldiers had come so far to reflect back upon.
Some examples of this dilemma during the course of the journey . . .
I stood at the surf line on Dog Green sector, Omaha Beach
with Capt. Ralph Gorenson – the real commander of Charlie Co./2nd Rangers (not Tom Hanks) – and could not imagine what it took to cross that beach on that morning.
I walked the grounds of Brécourt Manor with Shifty Powers and Buck Taylor and could not fathom what it took to fight through 100 miles of hedgerows just like this one, let alone destroy four enemy artillery pieces at this site with only a dozen U.S. paratroopers.
I covered the four corners of the Dachau concentration camp and could not envision the place piled high with rotting corpses, walking skeletons, and couldn’t imagine the stench. And above all, I could not divorce myself from my post-war knowledge of Holocaust history and try to appreciate what toll it must have taken on the men who entered that charnel house of death with no hint of what to expect there. I could only guess at what such an experience could do to the humanity of a young soldier at age 20 after the soul-numbing brutality of a year of non-stop combat.
But there were things I could figure out. Things like rage, brutality, the depths the human soul can sink to under such devastating conditions; how easily men adapt to killing and how they can develop a taste for it; how war poisons the hearts of all it touches, particularly those who shoulder the weapons and do the killing. I did get that much.
So I sat across the desk from my young lawyer friend, unable to comprehend his lack of comprehension. And in that moment, I knew it was pointless. Because I may indeed have had my own line of departure when it came to the men of D-Day, the yawning chasm of which I could not bridge. Morris Weinmann went places and experienced things that I never got close to, my own wartime experience notwithstanding. But one question I didn’t have to ask him was, “Why did you do it?” That one, I could figure out for myself.
My young attorney friend is a leader for the 21st century. Schooled in American history to the extent that is allowed in what passes for domestic education these days, the due bill required to maintain America’s identity as a sovereign nation and its role as the hope for legitimate victims of oppression around the world eludes him. Of course, in this new integrated world where globalism is the order of the day and any hint of national pride is a dirty word, he is by no means unique. He is but a product of his time, reflecting the values which influence him. He reflects the community in which he lives.
That community is more globalist than it is American. The diversity of its membership can be counted among Indian, Middle Eastern, South Asian, South American, and African elements with the ever-waning Euro-American influence to give it balance.
As Christians, we welcome such diversity, and by that I mean legitimate ethnic diversity, not some catch phrase for liberal talking points. The Cross is the great equalizer, after all. All people stand condemned in its shadow. All people are forgiven who embrace it; and if God’s grace by the blood of His Son is not open to all peoples, of all ethnic backgrounds, then Jesus indeed died for nothing.
As Americans, we embrace those who come here to embrace us – our values, our country, our way of life. After all, it was the children of immigrants, along with those who could trace their lineage back to the Pilgrims, who, at the crossroads of the 20th century, crossed the beaches, hit the drop zones, and fought through the towns and cities to liberate a continent, and preserve the civilized world.
But in our zeal to embrace the multi-ethnic world under one big, all-inclusive banner of global universalism, what gets lost in the mix are the harsh facts of life that evil is still loose in the world, the heart of man is still rotten with corruption, and if America’s identity gets swept away in a tidal wave of pseudo-globalist brotherhood, what sentinel will stand in its stead to hold back the flood tide of barbarity that could still consume the world in yet another dark age?
National pride may be dead in this country, but its nativist cousin is alive and well in the four corners of the world, beating with a dark vitality that is alive and well. Envy, hatred and lust for power still are the order of the day in many, if not most corners of the world. The global paradise by which many of us profit so handsomely may come at the price of America’s soul. But what force will stand in the hurricane that will blow when the devils of tyranny, genocide, slavery and ruthless ambition break with the fury of a tsunami on these shores, and there is no one with a sense of the value of America willing to cough up the dime to stand against it?
The Bible, indeed says it best:
- “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” – Matthew 16:26
So, I’m not holding out much hope that the Normandy presentation is going to fly for the high school group. And if it is, I don’t know that I’ll be inclined to deliver it. It lived a tortured life, died an inglorious death, and I see no reason to exhume the body, dust it off, and tap dance on its decaying corpse to keep a group of bored teenagers properly entertained. The Bible is pretty clear about casting pearls before swine.
But if there was an overriding factor that tipped the scales against once again warming up my anemic public speaking career, it would have to be my young lawyer friend, who, for the best reasons, wanted me to deliver it in the first place. There is no way his eyes can be opened to what was at stake when the world swung on the hinge of history that long-ago June morning in France. He appreciates the power of the experience I related to him, but cannot note its implications. He sees the significance of telling the tale, but can’t internalize its timeless truths.
And that’s typical as we endure yet another changing of the guard. By that, I don’t mean the imminent departure of the few remaining members of the greatest generation. Their contribution has already been made. The moving finger, having writ, now moves on. And if the up-and-coming generation of leaders no longer values the heritage of its forefathers, the responsibility for that vacuum falls squarely on the shoulders of the aging generation of postwar boomers who, in their arrogance were going to change the world and who failed to pass along their country’s birthright. If they (we, I should say, since I count myself among them) in their own brand of conceit accomplished anything it was to tear down what their WWII fathers had built. The home, the family, the church, the workplace, everything was redefined with an arbitrary complacency, not according to any set of standards – of either God or man – but according to what felt good at the time.
If the WWII generation failed to share the insights of their experience with their children, became consumed with the pursuit of material wealth, and out of their own sense of accomplishment chose not to answer to anyone, then their boomer sons and daughters failed to value their country’s heritage, let alone impart it to their own progeny. It was a different failure, but arguably more devastating. And if leaders learn the skill at the feet of their fathers, this lack of direction could very well be irreversible. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa. And for this loss of national identity, the offhand disregard for our national heritage and the lack of vision of our country’s legacy, there can be no absolution. What is lost can never be regained.
Given that failure, the current lack of understanding is inevitable. Because without direction, without edification, without guidance, what follows in the wake of such a void is not some harmonious new world order, but latter-day barbarism. Remove the restraints, and humanity will sink to its lowest common denominator every time. And if you need confirmation of this nasty bit of truth, just walk the grounds of Auschwitz.. Because men are weak, deluded and filled with pride. So we conveniently ignore the erosion of our national distinctiveness. Like a cultural malignancy, we won’t take notice until we’re coughing up blood. We lie to ourselves so well, we could do it for a living.
The resultant chaos is that some people just don’t care. Some people consider what happened over half a century ago a footnote of history. Some people find it quaintly anachronistic, the stuff that fills a lazy Sunday afternoon while planted on the couch half-heartedly watching The History Channel.
Then again, some people just don’t get it.