Sixty years ago, June 6, 1944, thousands of Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy, France, to establish a foothold on the European continent and to begin to roll back the Nazi army toward the Fatherland. It was a bold and potentially costly strategy, with unit casualties expected to hit seventy percent, particularly among the paratroopers who would be vulnerable for so long as they fell to earth and disengaged from their chutes. Remarkably, losses fell in the "acceptable," twenty-percent range, and the rest is history. Eisenhower's bold invasion virtually won the war.
War has changed over the intervening years. Air power has become even more dominant, and long-range bombing using cruise missiles in addition to bombers has made war a distant affair. Ground troops are still necessary, as everyone who watches the news from Iraq knows, but the massive numbers of troops maneuvering for every inch of ground seems like a relic of the past. Now the name of the game is accuracy and speed, which often equates to overwhelming force, as it manifested itself in the latest round of the Gulf War.
One criticism of long-range warfare is that it is too remote, too sterile, too tidy—at least for those on the dispatching end. In this way, war can almost be fought single-handedly by desk-jockeys behind computer screens. A few keystrokes and the push of a button, and death and destruction are cruising toward the enemy at hundreds of miles per hour!
Back in 1944, war was far more personal. Despite long-range artillery and air support, manpower played a massive role in the outcome of battles. The thousands who waded ashore or floated to the ground were necessary players in rooting out the dug-in Germans. These young men had to face the withering machinegun fire from concrete pillboxes, dare the landmines, clear the barbed wire, and cross the coverless beaches—and then be prepared to assault the nearest concentration of German soldiers!
They knew the risks. They were not mindless automatons, ignorantly or slavishly obeying their orders. They understood that their chances of surviving the initial onslaught were slim. They realized that, even if they survived, many of their buddies would not. Nevertheless, knowing both their duty and the importance of their participation, they stepped off the transports into the surf, ready to do their part to liberate Europe.
Though of course frightened and uncertain of the future, their loved ones back home supported them—in fact, the whole nation did. From rationing to recycling to converting factories to community service, the America people put their shoulder to producing whatever "our boys" needed to win the war. Even liberal bastion Hollywood got into the act, sending famous actors into the fray and shooting patriotic movies to inspire the country.
Could something like that happen today? Call me cynical, but I think it doubtful.
What is especially lacking today is a spirit of sacrifice. Sixty years ago, people did not universally believe that the self was the individual's highest priority. Many World War II veterans speak of their sacrifices with a shrug, explaining that they were participating in something far greater than themselves. Defeating fascism, liberating conquered peoples, and bringing peace to a war-torn world were worth the blood, sweat, and tears it took to pay for them.
Since then, we have seen this valorous and sacrificial spirit replaced with the "Me-Generation," rampant individualism, postmodern rejection of authority, unprecedented affluence, instant gratification, and the throw-away, consumer culture. No longer is anything noble worth sacrificing for. Not even the threat of additional and possibly worse 9-11s has made Americans willing to sacrifice anything for the anti-terror effort. We live in an apathetic, self-absorbed society.
Ultimately, even though the United States is currently unassailable, the average American's egotistical attitude makes the nation vulnerable. Its "each man for himself" credo (see Judges 17:6; 21:25) exposes America's soft underbelly of self-satiety, moral weakness, and pompous self-confidence. What would today's average, obese, couch-potato American do if the nation required him to serve his country? Would he volunteer to serve in the armed forces? Would he agree to a few hours a week of community service? Would he cut his gasoline consumption to a few gallons per week? Would he stand for having his favorite TV shows pre-empted for war news?
These questions are rhetorical. It is difficult to know what a people will do in a pinch. Yet, from the way Americans are griping about the War on Terror, it is hard not to be skeptical—and it is not even a full-blown war as was World War II. This weekend, take some time to remember D-Day and the valor and sacrifice of its participants. It may be a long time before we see their like again.
- Richard T. Ritenbaugh