Like the rest of us, none of these soldiers wanted to die. None of them wanted to fight a war. In fact, these men despised war as much as any generation. In their hearts, they wanted to be back home, in America, with their families and loved ones. Yet, at sunrise on June 6, 1944, when they crossed the stormy English Channel headed for a French beach code-named Omaha, they certainly knew they were going to their slaughter. Only God truly knows the anguish of their prayers. But even in this agony, when their landing crafts finally ran ashore and the ramps splashed down into the waves, these Americans did not hesitate. They all headed straight into a violent death and left us what is now an eternal scene – dead bodies floating in the water, cries of the young dying, and dark red blood soaking the sand.
Yet amazingly, this eternal scene – this passion at Omaha – was just one drop of blood in a generation's sacrifice, for blood was spilled the world over. The number of casualties staggers the mind. At Omaha Beach alone, America suffered over 8000 casualties. By war's end, nearly 300,000 Americans had died – white Americans, black Americans, Americans of all heritages. France and the British Commonwealth each sustained over 500,000 deaths. Poland suffered 120,000 battlefield deaths and, incredibly, over 5 million civilian deaths. And then there was the USSR, where the suffering becomes unimaginable. 20 million killed, 7 million of whom were civilians. In China, 13 million people died, 10 million of whom were civilians. And certainly in the heart of this sacrifice was the innocent Jew – 6 million men, women and children gassed. All told, Allied deaths reached 44 million.
This kind of suffering is impossible to fully comprehend, but it does establish forever that this generation was one of supreme sacrifice. Like few others, the WWII generation saw its darkest moment during the prime of youth – a time when other generations enjoy the most life has to offer – weddings, families and careers. So, some sixty years later, when you step back and see the sacrifice endured, you can't help but wonder if during this most tragic time, when so many good people were dying the most horrible of deaths, their silent cry was, "My God, why have you forsaken me?".
And once this realization comes to light, one is then inevitably compelled to look at the enemy of the time. Now as much as ever, everyone knows that this war was Hitler's. He was the one who brilliantly unleashed the darkest forces within man – forces that led to a cataclysm of violence ending with 11 million Axis deaths. Yet now, over sixty years later, is it possible to say that Hitler, deep within, was a man of such pathological hatred that unconsciously he despised the future generations of Germany more than anyone else? Because, even though these future generations have had nothing to do with the atrocities, they have had to carry its overwhelming burden – a burden that hides the cultural achievements of a people otherwise graced with astonishing genius. Like the rest of us, they want to appreciate their heritage, but they suffer from a tremendous wound. A leader rose to power on the despair of a nation and then committed suicide after murdering everyone in the house. So when looking at the blood flowing in these later German generations, the WWII generation was challenged by apparently the most transcendental saying of all – love thy enemy. And once this challenge was met, then the bloody sacrifice of World War II became complete and turned into the chalice lifted towards world reconciliation.
Yet remarkably, even this accomplishment – the memory of the chalice handed-on– does not end this generation's heroism, but instead marks the beginning of an even more profound mystery. For some unknown reason – perhaps it is part of some divinely inspired drama – their sacrifice over the past sixty years was not only forgotten, their achievements were scorned. Despite the best intentions of the vast majority of those of the 1960's culture, a new kind of poisonous cynicism was born during the Woodstock era. At first, this cynicism was largely unseen and unnoticed. But at some time – perhaps it was during the cocaine inspired 70's and 80's – an aggressive minority of cynics overtook the rest of this generation who were also sacrificing themselves to better society. These very few cultural cynics ushered in the era of the antihero and prided themselves on what they, incredibly, still proclaim as their banner cry – "taboo-breaking". To these few, "out with the old, in with the new" became a ruse to slay the cultural achievements of their fathers and enjoy a short-lived benefit. But in the long run, a society based on the antihero leads to a devastating form of cultural insanity. In 200 years, when anthropologists are sifting through the artifacts of pop culture, they may point to two works that best illustrate the pathos of these cultural cynics – Oliver Stone's movie, Natural Born Killers, and the 1964 New York Times headline that "God is Dead."
Yet, just when you think the cynics have carried not only the day but also the generation, two voices from this era emerge that miraculously resurrect the forgotten heroism of the WWII generation. "Miraculously" is the word because both of these voices come from deep within two institutions that, at one time, did much to belittle the values of the WWII generation – the national media and American entertainment. One voice is that of Tom Brokaw of NBC who compiled accounts of the WWII generation in a book entitled, The Greatest Generation. The other, of course, is Steven Spielberg who in all his brilliance created the film, Saving Private Ryan. Perhaps both men have seen the inherent danger of an antihero culture gone too far. In any event, both are heroes themselves because through their works, the sacrifice of the WWII generation has come back to life after being pronounced as dead and then completely forgotten.
So, for those of you who greatly appreciate the heroism of the WWII generation, read The Greatest Generation and watch Saving Private Ryan. And for those of you who have taken it a step further and find yourself wondering about the ultimate destiny of these decent men and women, try the following. Get up early one morning and as you watch the sun rise, ask yourself, "What happened to the American Soldier who died in agony at Omaha?" And as the first rays of light break the grip of darkness, hear the answer of Christ saying, "I am one with the Father."
Sidney O. Smith III dedicates this essay to the WWII generation.
(Originally written around 1998)