“I Learn a Lot from the Veterans”

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ONE OF THE BEST COMMENTS CAME IN A BEER-DRINKING bull session with some veterans. We were talking about what it all meant. I never caught the name of the man who gave us the following image, but I’ll never forget what he said: “Imagine this. In the spring of 1945, around the world, the sight of a twelve-man squad of teen-age boys, armed and in uniform, brought terror to people’s hearts. Whether it was a Red Army squad in Berlin, Leipzig, or Warsaw, or a German squad in Holland, or a Japanese squad in Manila or Seoul or in China, that squad meant rape, pillage, looting, wanton destruction, senseless killing. But there was an exception: a squad of GIs, a sight that brought the biggest smiles you ever saw to people’s lips, and joy to their hearts.

“Around the world this was true, even in Germany, even—after September 1945—in Japan. This was because GIs meant candy, cigarettes, C-rations, and freedom. America had sent the best of her young men around the world, not to conquer but to liberate, not to terrorize but to help. This was a great moment in our history.”

Another bright image came from a veteran who said that he felt he had done his part in helping change the twentieth century from one of darkness into one of light. I think that was the great achievement of the generation who fought World War II on the Allied side. As of 1945—the year in which more people were killed violently, more buildings destroyed, more homes burned than any other year in history—it was impossible to believe in human progress. World Wars I and II had made a mockery of the nineteenth-century idea of progress, the notion that things were getting better and would continue to do so. In 1945 one had to believe that the final outcome of the scientific and technological revolution that had inspired the idea of progress would be a world destroyed.

But slowly, surely, the spirit of those GIs handing out candy and helping bring democracy to their former enemies spread, and today it is the democracies—not the totalitarian states—that are on the march. Today one can again believe in progress, for things really are getting better. This is thanks to the GIs—along with the millions of others who helped liberate Germany and Japan from their evil rulers, then stood up to Stalin and his successors. That generation has done more to spread freedom—and prosperity—around the globe than any previous generation.

Sgt. Henry Halsted, who won a Bronze Star, participated after the war in an experimental program that brought together college-age German and American veterans in England, and a similar one in France. The idea was to teach through contact and example. In 1997 Halsted got a Christmas card from a German participant living in Munich: “I think often of our meetings and mutual ideals. Indeed, the 1948 program and everything connected with it was the most important, decisive event for me. Influenced my life deeply!”

A French participant wrote: “In 1950 France was in ruins. I saw only a world marked by war, by destruction, by the shadow of war, and by fear. I believed that it was not finished, that there would be a next war. I did not think it would be possible to build a life, to have a family. Then came the group of young Americans, attractive, idealistic, optimistic, protected, believing and acting as though anything was possible. It was a transforming experience for me.”

That spirit—we can do it, we can rebuild Europe and hold back the Red Army and avoid World War III—was the great gift of the New World to the Old World in the twentieth century. America paid for that gift with the lives of some of her best young men. When I read the letters from the veterans, I’m almost always impressed by their brief accounts of what they did with their lives after the war. They had successful careers, they were good citizens and family men, and many of them made great contributions to their society, their country, and the world. Then I think about those who didn’t make it, especially all those junior officers and NCOs who got killed in such appalling numbers.

These men were natural leaders. They died one by one. Of each of them, I wonder, What life was cut off here? A genius? It is impossible to imagine what he might have invented; we do know that his loss was our loss. A budding politician? Where might he have led us? A builder? A teacher? A scholar? A novelist? I sometimes think the biggest price we pay for war is what might have been.

Veterans: Tell Us Your Story