Hard Choices

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On New Year’s Eve my husband Mike and I went to see the movie The Darkest Hour which is a presentation of the early days of Winston Churchill’s tenure as Prime Minister of Great Britain. It was May of 1940, and Adolf Hitler was marching across Europe seemingly with ease. One country after another had fallen under his conquest and it appeared as though he was unstoppable. Many in Great Britain were certain that the only logical choice for the empire was to broker a peace deal that would allow them to maintain independence while acceding to German influence. There was much talk that Britain had neither the manpower nor the stomach to endure a war with the superior German forces. It almost seemed inevitable that the country would fall just as so many European nations had already done. It was indeed one of the darkest hours in the history of the country.

Winston Churchill had only recently replaced Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister. The government had lost confidence in Chamberlain and his efforts to maintain peace with the Germans appeared to be appeasement rather than diplomacy. He was being blamed by some for the fall of so many of Britain’s allies and Churchill was reluctantly chosen to replace him as head of the government even though many believed that his tenure would be short-lived. He had not particularly distinguished himself in either World War I or his other forays into governing. Many thought that he would soon be replaced by Lord Halifax who was viewed as a more reasoned leader. Furthermore there was great concern about Churchill’s unwillingness to consider a peace accord with Hitler, whom he considered to be a despicable despot unworthy of deference of any kind. 

At the time the entire British army of 300,000 troops was hopelessly trapped by German troops in Dunkirk and seemingly on the verge of total destruction leaving Britain completely unprotected. In a desperate move Churchill commanded one of his admirals to distract the Germans so that civilian sailors might employ their crafts to rescue the stranded troops. It was a daring plan that many thought was dangerously foolhardy. Churchill understood that it was instead the country’s last hope, and he was joined by the King in believing that any peace deal with the Germans was unacceptable. He did not believe that Britain would really be allowed to be independent of Nazi rule, and he could not imagine being able to accept the sight of Nazi flags flying over Buckingham Palace. He remained firm in his resolve to fight off the invading German army one way or another.

Churchill ultimately garnered the support of the government as well as the people of Great Britain when he delivered a stirring speech in which he insisted that Britain would fight to the last man, and if that was not successful then they would rely on being rescued by the other nations of the commonwealth and the people of the new world. His unflinching challenge captured the imagination of his countrymen, and as Lord Halifax noted Churchill had commandeered the English language into the battle.

We know of course what the rest of history was. The United States entered the fray a year and half later, and Hitler split his forces and resources by embarking on a new front of war with Russia. Ultimately he was defeated and Britain never came under his rule. But for the courage of Winston Churchill many historians argue that Europe may have been dominated by Germany and been changed in ways that would have had even more horrific consequences for mankind than they did.

The Darkest Hour was a captivating movie and Gary Oldman did a yeoman’s job of portraying Winston Churchill. More importantly was its story which made clear the dire situation of the world in 1940. I learned many things that I had never before known and they gave me a better perspective of what it must have been like to live during that era, particularly in Europe. This truly is a movie that everyone should take the time to see, but sadly the audience on the day that I went was almost totally comprised of individuals either my age or older. I only saw three young men in the entire crowd which is truly a shame because I doubt that most of today’s millennials have any idea of how dangerous the world situation was back then. I hear so many people today complaining that this is the most menacing time in history, and while there is certainly a grain of merit in such pronouncements I also have to wonder if our present situation even compares to what was happening in the spring of 1940 when the very face of Europe and Asia was changing so rapidly that it appeared that there would be no way to stop the autocratic land grabs. It chills me to even consider what the world might have become without the courage and determination of Great Britain and its eventual allies in the fight against fascism and fanaticism.

There is a popular series on Amazon called The Man In High Castle that considers what the world would be like if Hitler had succeeded in his goal of world domination. It is a dark look at the possibilities that were actually closer to fruition than most of us ever thought. The United States was still little more than a second rate nation at the beginning of that war, totally ill prepared for the battles to come. In the first weeks of the conflict they were utterly befuddled and defeated, but somehow just as with the citizens of Great Britain the American people maintained their resolve to defeat the evil of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party. With the combined efforts of some brilliant military men, the bravery of the troops, and the luck of bad decisions by Adolf Hitler good ultimately triumphed over evil, but it is horrifying nonetheless to even imagine how things might have been had the Germans actually won.

If you have not yet gone to see The Darkest Hour or have yet to even consider viewing it, I highly recommend that you do so. Be sure to take your middle school and high school age children with you as well as the young adults in your family. We learn from our history and the story outlined in the film is one that is probably not familiar to most of us when it should be. We face our own tyrants in today’s world and we need to consider the lessons learned in the past as we make important decisions. We also must ask ourselves just how willing we will be to look the other way when we see monsters denying people the human rights that we all deserve. When do we compromise with them and when is it time to draw a line. We need to know these things because the time may come when such hard choices will have to be made. 

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The Horrors of War

WWII U.S. INVASION LEYTE ISLAND

I’m a believer in the idea that learning should never end. I try to keep an open mind and gain new knowledge on a continuous basis. One of my favorite pastimes is attending continuing education courses at Rice University. This semester I allowed my husband Mike to choose the class that we would attend since he recently had a stroke and our social life has been somewhat restricted for the past three months. We haven’t been able to go on camping trips, and we had to forego our plans to travel to Colorado and Wyoming to view the total eclipse. I’ve tried to fill our time with local attractions and the Rice classes seemed to be just the ticket for us. Imagine my surprise when Mike decided that we needed to enroll in an offering that would address the war in the Pacific with Japan.

I have to admit that I was quietly disappointed that we would spend eight weeks gaining information on battles that had never been of much interest to me. Much like most people I had focused on the European theater of World War II rather than those fought on faraway islands and continents of which I knew very little. Since my main purpose was to keep Mike active, I nonetheless quietly agreed to sign on. I’ve been surprised at how interesting this course has turned out to be.

War is hell in any situation, but the one fought in the Pacific was particularly so. After the attack on Pearl Harbor the United States was in a tizzy. The nation had initially ignored the conflict raging in Europe and on the mainland of China and in the Pacific regions. Citizens tended to believe that that our best choice would be to remain neutral and isolated. The Japanese forced the issue with their attack and our situation was further exacerbated when Germany declared war on the United States. Whether we wanted involvement or not we were suddenly up to our necks in a need to react, and we were hardly ready for what lay ahead, especially in our early encounters with Japan.

We had a military primarily composed of officers who had fought in World War I. Our troops had to be hastily trained for an environment which most had never encountered. We were initially outmanned and outmaneuvered. The places where battles were fought were often tropical hell holes where disease created more casualties than warfare. Our soldiers battled malaria and dinghy fever in addition to Japanese soldiers willing to fight to the death for their emperor and their country. Our first forays were most often unsuccessful and peppered with defeat. It must have been truly horrifying to families far away in little towns in the center of the United Sates to try to understand what their sons and husbands and brothers were doing in those places that were so unknown to them.

Viewing a map of the Pacific during that time has helped me to understand what Japan was attempting to accomplish as well as illuminating the fear that must have been quite intense in places like the Philippines, Hawaii, Guam, Alaska and the westernmost coastal states. I had often wondered why one of my uncles had been stationed in Alaska and now I know. I had heard of some of the terrible battles in the Pacific and had not understood their purpose, but now I do. Mostly I have a visceral sense of what had no doubt been the fears of people around the world during that era.

My mom often spoke of a man with whom she had been engaged before she met my father. She had loved him very much and she recalled her fears when he was sent to fight in the Pacific. He was killed in a battle on Saipan. It was apparent from the faraway look that she would get in her eyes that she never quite got over losing him. She often told me that nobody who was not alive at the time would ever be able to imagine the emotions that they had. It seemed as though everyone knew somebody who had died and virtually all of the young men had enlisted and were gone. It was a time of great struggle and sacrifice and uncertainty. It didn’t help when news arrived of the death of a loved one.

The Japanese were particularly fierce fighters in the tradition of the Samurai soldiers. They had already been battle tested before the United States entered the fray. They had planned to overtake a ring of fortifications in the Pacific to insure their dominance of the region. Their planes and their naval fleet were far better suited for the forays than ours initially were. But for a few tactical errors in the beginnings of the war they might of ended the conflict quickly. Luckily we had enough time to adapt to the conditions and ultimately learn how to fight in such foreign environments. We developed medications for our troops and improved the logistics for delivering supplies and reinforcements. Nonetheless the young men who were sent over there had to exist in the most horrific of situations. It is a wonder that they survived and eventually became victorious.

The lecturer delivering this series is a military man who was living with his parents in the Philippines when that country was invaded by the Japanese. As a child he was a prisoner of war. He eventually became a military historian and teacher at West Point. He saw much of what was happening in the Pacific up close and early on learned the importance of the Pacific and the intricacies of its many islands and territories. I suspect that the tensions of that time have only slightly eased as the modern day countries vie to protect their borders. A look at a map of the area vividly demonstrates the potential for dominance by a tyrant nation. It is in the interest of the entire world to keep the peace, because without it many would most certainly be in danger.

I knew men who fought in World War II and I mostly took their heroism and sacrifice for granted. It never really registered to me how horrible it must have been for my mother’s fiancee when he battled with a the Japanese in Saipan. In hearing the descriptions of such melees I have come to realize just how terrible they were. My interest in knowing more is now heightened. I don’t suppose that I will watch movies like Unbroken or Hacksaw Ridge with quite the same detachment again.

I don’t think that any of us take enough time to really learn about the intricacies of the battlefield. We tend to see such incidents as having little to do with our own existences. Perhaps if we were willing to face the horrors of the details we might be more inclined to find ways of bridging our differences rather than resorting to the violence of war. Through this class I have come to realize what it may have meant to be fighting for months just to hold onto a significant patch of ground that appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. I have learned of the continual bombardments and the illnesses that fettered the attempts to protect places that may not have seemed particularly important, but were in fact key to turning back the aggressions of the enemy. I have to applaud the American people who stayed the course even when it appeared to be futile and gave of the treasure of their young men’s lives in a cause that did not always make sense.

I hate war in all of its forms but this class has shown me that sometimes we have no other course of action than to defend ourselves and our allies. For whatever reasons tyrants and those intent on evil seem to rise up again and again. Luckily we have heroes who push them back. It’s important that we learn as much about what they have done so that we might always honor them for their service.

Bearing the Sins of Our Fathers

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I’m a bonafide Baby Boomer. I was born at the beginning of the Baby Boomer years. People in my age group were affected, and maybe even traumatized, by certain events that defined a great deal of how we see the world. Many of us were raised according to the recommendations of Dr. Spock. I know that I was. My mother often mentioned how he would suggest dealing with particular situations. We all remember crouching under our desks every Friday at noon in a drill designed to keep us safe in the event of a nuclear attack by the Russians. We remember Nikita Khrushchev taking off his shoe and banging it on a table at the United Nations and promising to destroy our country from within. The way we learned in school was reimagined after the Russians launched Sputnik. We are all able to vividly recall exactly where we were and what we were doing when John Kennedy was assassinated. The sound of the cadence of the drums at his funeral march still ring eerily in our heads. We saw the Civil Rights movement changing our country for the better and wished that we had been old enough to travel to Alabama to take part in marches of civil disobedience. Perhaps more than any other event, however, we were forever marked by the Vietnam War, a conflict that somehow both defines and divides us to this very day.

My generation paid little attention to what was happening in Southeast Asia up until I was in high school. We had been much more enthralled with the space program and the progress that we were making in journeying from our planet into the universe. Suddenly, in spite of our former ignorance, we began to hear more about a civil war in a faraway land and a supposed fight against Communism. We learned about the Domino Theory, a belief that if one country in Asia fell under the domination of communism others would follow and the boogie man of communism would be banging on our own doors. None of it had particular meaning for us until President Johnson began increasing our involvement in that conflict, and because there was a draft system all of the young men my age had to register for the possibility of involuntary involvement in the military.

By the time I was a senior in high school there were hundreds of thousands of US troops fighting in Vietnam. Some of the members of classes ahead of mine had already gone to war and a few of them had died. It was as though the world had suddenly blown up and anti-war fervor began to overtake the land. Some saw those who did everything possible to avoid the war as traitors and instigators. Others called soldiers who served in Vietnam baby killers. The evening news brought scenes of violence and bloodshed into our homes each evening. It was impossible not to have an opinion regarding the volatile political situation, and it was my generation that was caught in the big middle of a war being run by old men using young boys as canon fodder.

Of course that war did not end well. The United States eventually had to leave Vietnam without victory, an outcome that the French and British had predicted, possibly because they had endured similar situations in the past. North Vietnam took over the governing of the entire country. Dominoes did not begin to fall all over Asia. The world eventually settled down and forgot most of what had happened back then, but those of us who were intimately part of that history have never forgotten. We were all changed in one way or another by the Vietnam debacle. We have been unfairly judged on both sides of the debate by our elders and our children. We were teenagers and young twenty somethings who were asked to sacrifice for a cause that we now know even the Secretary of Defense did not believe would end well.

We began as advisors to the government of South Vietnam, a political machine that was at best riddled with problems and at worst was filled with graft. The conflict was a civil war among people attempting to decide their own fate. Our interference was never taken well and the anger over our involvement only grew when we appeared to be invading the country rather than just offering suggestions. The United States was so fearful of Communism that it allowed itself to become more and more entrenched until it ultimately appeared to be an actual war between North Vietnam and the United States. The truth was that the more we bombed and threw napalm, the greater became the distrust and dislike of our country. Sadly, the young soldiers who were the same age as I was became victims not just of the horrors of war, but also a backlash against them from their own fellow citizens. They were caught in a controversial middle ground that was quite unfair.

At the same time those who protested the war were accused of being disrespectful and traitorous, but in truth they were not unpatriotic. In fact they demonstrated love for their country in voicing their concerns, most of which have been shown to have been correct in retrospect. Private correspondence between Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson has revealed that there was indeed great worry that the war was being fought in vain and that our youth were being wasted on the battlefield. How awful to think that so many died when they needn’t have. How terrible to realize that the divisions that tore open a national wound should never have happened. It is detestable that the war continued mostly because nobody wanted to admit that they had been so wrong.

I was recently listening to an elder statesman who participated in both World War II and Vietnam. He felt that the most unfair outcome of Vietnam was the idea that the generation that fought against Germany and Japan was somehow more noble than those who went to Vietnam or their counterparts who stayed home and mounted resistance. He noted that we attempted to fight the two wars in the same manner when it was obvious that they required different tactics. He also defended the soldiers of Vietnam in noting that they were as good and courageous as their forebears had ever been. The only difference was that the leaders of World War II set up plans that worked, while the leaders of the Vietnam War made one mistake after another. He insisted that it is totally unfair to look upon the Baby Boomers as somehow less patriotic than their parents were because the circumstances were so very different.

We Baby Boomers were never the same after that war. It defined us in uncomplimentary ways. It was used to turn us against one another. We were pawns who have never quite been understood by either our elders or our children. It was run by a man who had been a systems analyst and who believed that it would be possible to create battle plans based on data such as tallying the numbers of those who died on each side. He neglected to take into account aspects of human nature until it was far too late. The entire rationale was built upon a false premise that left our country damaged. We are still attempting to reconcile the differences that tore us apart back then. As for the Baby Boomers, we have become symbols of failure and lack of character when we were not the ones in charge. We were simply the group that was used so that politicians would not lose face or power.

If there is one dream that I have it is not so much that we Baby Boomers will one day be vindicated, but that no other generation will be put through such a horrible introduction to adulthood ever again. Those who wield authority must always be conscious of the human cost of their decisions, and have enough moral character to be certain that no group will be so badly abused. If we are one day able to admit openly to past mistakes and reflect on how to avoid them in the future, then the sacrifices of so many Baby Boomers will not have been totally in vain.