ByDavid W. Walker, Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes
This year’s Memorial Day observation occurs appropriately enough a few days before the 75th anniversary of D-Day when the U.S. and its allies, mainly Canadians and British, stormed ashore on Normandy, setting in motion the final triumph over Hitler and the Nazis. Before it was over, more than 400,000 Americans would pay the ultimate sacrifice fighting the Axis forces in Europe and the Japanese in the Pacific Theater. At the time, the total U.S. population was a bit over 131 million compared to about 330 million today.
The Americans who rose to that challenge had just emerged from the Great Depression and one would think that would have been more than enough trouble for one lifetime, but they never missed a beat. Almost overnight they whipped our moribund industries into shape and began churning out the materials of war even as they fought the war. We basically supplied our own armies as well as those of the British and Soviets and other allies. In 2001, Tom Brokaw wrote a best-selling book, “The Greatest Generation,” that celebrates that achievement.
It is altogether fitting and appropriate that we should pause this holiday to honor those survivors of the greatest generation to whom we owe a great debt. But we should also pause to honor those of the current generation who are shouldering a great burden of their own. The reality is that from D-Day through the surrender of Germany on May 8, 1945, the European war lasted almost 11 months. The war against Japan lasted longer from Dec. 7, 1941 through Aug. 15, 1945. That was long enough and more for those who were consumed by it, but it did finally come to an end.
If you date the beginning of the Great Depression from the famous stock market collapse the last week of October 1929, through the end of World War II, you have a span of roughly 16 years. It was without doubt a traumatic era but it did come to an end, setting the stage for a great post war economic boom that pave the way for decades of prosperity in our country.
We are today embroiled in another great conflict which for lack of a better name we call the War on Terror. It began with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when thousands of Americans were killed in a surprise attack—2,751 to be precise. That was more than the 2,403 Americans who were killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor that started World War II.
But now here we are almost 20 years in and the War on Terror continues. To be sure the overall death toll does not rival that of WWII, a few thousand and counting, but the counting continues with no end in sight. The war of the greatest generation was terrible but there was a consuming sense of purpose that enveloped the entire country. Every able-bodied man and millions of women too were fully engaged either in the military services or the wartime economy. We were unified like never before or since.
No such unity prevails today. We are fighting this war with the volunteer military that reflects only a tiny fraction of the overall population. We stand to honor them before sports events, but that is inadequate recognition. For many Americans—for the great majority of Americans—this war is well-nigh invisible.
President Trump no doubt speaks for the country when he wishes the War on Terror would just go away. When the last ISIS holdouts were finally driven from their last refuge in Syria and the infamous caliphate was no more, the president announced the end of ISIS. But within a few days ISIS struck again blowing up some young Americans at a café. ISIS went underground but it is still very much around; as are the Taliban and a seemingly endless array of similar terrorist groups operating around the globe.
The Pentagon has spent almost $2 trillion on this war with no end in sight. The State Department has spent another $127 billion to train police, military and border patrol agents in many countries, and to develop antiterrorism education programs. The 80 nations cooperating in our war against terrorism include 40 military bases, 65 counterterrorism training facilities, 26 U.S. military exercises, 14 with troops actively engaged in combat and seven where we manage air and drone strikes.
Meanwhile, all around the world thousands of radical activists are indoctrinating a new generation of terrorists committed to destroying our way of life. We cannot make peace with them or negotiate settlements. We must fight on and on with no end in sight. The casualty lists are small, compared to World War II, but it can only be a matter of time until the terrorists unleash another 9/11 or, God forbid, something worse.
Also, we need to keep in mind that for most of the combatants who survived WWII the war was over and done with after a year. The current generation of volunteers must return to the battlefields again and again indefinitely. A growing number of them give way to despair. The suicide rate among them is heartbreaking.
This Memorial Day let us honor the heroes of yesteryear, but also those of today – that thin gray line that keeps the wolves at bay year after year with no promise of peace to come for them and their families, only perpetual war.