|Wounded American soldiers at "Omaha Beach" on D-Day, 6 June 1944.|
The sacrifice of these men (often terribly young - Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier in US history, was all of 19 years old when Germany surrendered in May of 1945) is almost incomprehensible. Despite our romanticized memories of World War II, the vast majority of American soldiers were draftees, and their memoirs reveal little or no mention of the flag, nationalism, or the Four Freedoms, but a tremendous emphasis on their comrades in arms, on day-to-day survival, and on a heartbreaking longing just to make it back home alive and mostly whole. Even when physically whole, many were deeply wounded with 3 million American veterans coming home from World War II with some form of neuropsychological disorder, which all too often went unrecognized and untreated.
The thing to remember about these men is that they were not supermen, not even necessarily "the Greatest Generation" of Americans. They were just people, men and women from all across the country, from all economic backgrounds, from all levels of education. African-Americans fought for democracy abroad while Jim Crow ruled at home. The Japanese-Americans of the 442 Regimental Combat Team made their unit the most highly decorated regiment in the history of the US Army while their families were imprisoned in concentration camps in the California desert. Navajo code-talkers risked everything for a nation that had forced their people onto reservations. Tens of thousands more regular American kids left their lives and homes for the most horrific conflict in the entirety of human history and fought and suffered and died with astonishing bravery and courage in spite of their all too human fear. Not because they were imbued with some kind of super-patriotism, but often simply because the shortest way home was through the enemy.
These young folks were us, and a few of their descendants carry on their tradition today in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I suspect these modern men and women also think more about their buddies and getting home than they do anything else, and they still fight, suffer, and die for both. So today, step back from the flag-waving and bloodless black and white stills for a moment and remember the reality of what these people endured, and not just in Normandy and France, but also in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Southern France, Tarawa, Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Okinawa, and Burma, among too many other places made into Hell on Earth between 1936 and 1945. Take the time too to remember the young men and women from Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Poland, France, and the Soviet Union who fought beside us, and died in their millions.
General William T. Sherman noted not only that "war is hell," but also that "war is cruelty, and you cannot refine it." Remember today the young men who endured that hell and cruelty, and who inflicted the same on those who took them from their homes.