by Robert Arvay, Contributing Writer
A few days ago, I happened to meet an American veteran of World War II. As I try always to do in such encounters, I shook his hand, and said, “Thank you for my freedom. I enjoy it every day.”
For me, those words will never become trite or automatic for two reasons. One, I genuinely mean them. Two, sadly, the number of these veterans is daily decreasing by enormous numbers as they pass from this earth to their heavenly reward. The day will come when we have no more of them to thank personally.
Few of us fully appreciate the enormous sacrifice made to keep us free. Had these men not put their lives on the line, had they not prevailed, our lives today would be a living hell. We would be slaves to ruthless, evil dictators who casually slaughter millions, torture countless innocent victims, and enslave their captives under the most cruel of conditions.
About one-third of a million of our American heroes never returned from the battlefields where they saved us from that wretched fate. Their graves form oceans of white crosses and stars of David on foreign soil. Their widows grieved, and thousands of orphans never knew their fathers. Many thousands of brave men lost arms and legs, or were blinded, maimed and disfigured. The totality of the sacrifice is incalculable. Our allies from many other nations also gave their all.
We are the heirs of freedom, bought for us at a horrific price. Today, while we enjoy our liberty, too many of us are unaware how fragile is that precious thing called freedom. It really and truly could be taken from us with shocking suddenness, and replaced with chains and barbed wire, not only for us, but for our children as well.
“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.” ― Ronald Reagan
History records the great battles of World War II in terms of how many thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen were pitted against the millions of enemy fighters. Indeed, this was the case. What history sometimes fails to tell us, however, is that many times the tide of a great battle was turned by the heroic action of one man, one squad, one crew, who faced death while refusing to retreat.
Many times, it was a single soldier, sometimes surrounded by the corpses of his fallen comrades, who held the line against onrushing hordes of enemy soldiers, their bayonettes seeking his heart. On land, sea and air these individual actions often turned back a ferocious enemy and saved the day.
One reason for this is that the American character, unlike that of our enemies, values individual effort. Enemy soldiers often refused to disregard tactical orders to adapt to changing situations, even when doing so might have won for them the battle. Americans, on the other hand, freely used their own individual initiative to improvise better strategies than those which they had been ordered to follow. Commanders not only allowed this, they expected it and rewarded it. As a consequence, even the lowest ranking American soldier could outwit enemy officers in the heat of battle, by doing the unexpected. All of this flowed from our culture of individuality and freedom, a culture which our enemies did not then, and do not now, share.
You have, no doubt, heard the poem about how a kingdom was lost for want of a nail. In America’s case, there were thousands of instances in which the actions of one man, or a very few, made all the difference, and changed the course of history. The lowliest private, the deck-swabbing sailor, or the tail gunner of an aircraft-there are remarkable accounts in each of these cases where one man, at great risk to his life, stood off a powerful force of enemy fighters, and preserved for us our freedom. In many cases, those men did not survive the encounter.
This focus on World War II in no way diminishes the heroism of Americans in all of our wars. Nor does it steal the glory from the Australian soldier, the British fighter pilot, the Canadian sailor, all of whom fought by the side of Americans in common cause.
My focus is, instead, personal. It kind of hurts me to see a frail, elderly man hobbling through a shopping mall, his baseball cap proudly announcing that he is a veteran of World War II, and being ignored, or in some cases even disrespected, by nearly everyone around him. We, who enjoy the fruits of this man’s heroic sacrifice, owe him better than that, much better by far. We also owe it to ourselves to show that respect.
We did not automatically win World War II. We could well have lost it. The consequence of defeat would have been unimaginably horrible. One man, symbolically speaking, prevented that. He might be that frail, elderly man you see in the mall.
Today, the world remains as dangerous a tinderbox as it was in the few years that preceded World War II. Freedom is as imperiled now as it was then. The next time you see a veteran, or an active duty serviceman, keep in mind that this one person might be the one man or woman who stands between you and tyranny. Thank him, or her, and appreciate what we have while we have it. Our grandchildren will, if we properly educate them, thank us.
I dedicate this to my father, Sergeant John Arvay, 1913-2001, 36th Infantry Division, World War II.