Category Archives: World War II

Remembering the Promise of Liberty: A Tribute to the WWII Generation

This week we remember the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the formal entry of the USA into World War II. While we were already defacto allies with Great Britain and the Soviet Union against Germany, the events of December 7-11 turned a European conflict into a World War and awakened the “sleeping giant” of our industrial and military capacities. Though we directly responded to the attack in the Pacific, Hitler and Mussolini’s declarations of war made the conflict global.

The events of 1941-1945 are well-known. In this essay I want to highlight the sacrifices of a generation and the consequences of the conflict for increasing the love for liberty in the USA and around the world. The soldiers in all theaters knew they were fighting for freedom against totalitarian regimes that regarded other races as inferior. Japanese treatment of conquered nations and prisoners of war was inhuman, for they regarded Chinese, Korean, and other Asian populations as created to serve them. POWs were starved and tortured, seen as cowards for surrendering rather than committing Hari Kari (suicide). The Nazi genocides and oppressions stagger the imagination as six million Jews and six million other non-combatants are destroyed in the demonic labor and extermination universe crafted by this evil regime. This is why millions of American men and women enlisted and gave their all.

A special note here: I am generalizing about the German and Japanese governments and people in power at the time, not declaring every Japanese or German person guilty.

One story coming out of World War II that deserves more attention is the millions of African American women and men that signed on for civilian and military service. In spite of the oppressions of Jim Crow and the segregation in the military, these brave folks fought and worked for their country, believing in the promises of liberty and justice in the Declaration of Independence and The Constitution. The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is one of courage against great odds. Black civilian workers and soldiers were paid less, given less prominent positions, and, in general, relegated to the lowest rungs in the institutions. Yet, they shined in their bravery and sacrifice.

Another triumph out of tragedy narrative is the story of Japanese Americans serving in the military in spite of the oppression of the internment camps. The story of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team soldiers in the Italian campaigns of 1944-45 is one of courage and sacrifice. Soldiers in the 442nd RCT and their partners in the 100th IB earned seven presidential unit citations, two meritorious service plaques, 36 Army Commendation medals and 87 division commendations between them. Individual soldiers from both units earned 21 Medals of Honor, 29 Distinguished Service Crosses, 15 Soldier’s Medals and 9,500 Purple Hearts, among many other honors. In 2011, 450 Japanese American soldiers from the 442nd RCT and 100th were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the United States’ highest civilian award for service.

These are wonderful stories, and their impact was felt far beyond the battlefield. After the war, the Civil Rights Movement found new life, with a simple question, “If someone is willing to die for America, why are they kept from voting, education, housing and jobs?” President Truman integrated the military and by the mid-1950s, with the Brown vs. the Board of Education Supreme Court ruling making segregation in schools unconstitutional, momentum for justice increased. By 1965, Civil Rights and Voting Rights were the law of the land. By the 1970s and 1980s, the injustice of the internment camps came to light and reparations started.

America mobilized for liberty in a global war. As a result, she was able to mobilize for liberty for her own citizens, especially African Americans and immigrants. It is fitting that we honor this “greatest generation” by expanding its members to include the marginalized and oppressed, who, through sacrifice, paved the way for opportunities for their children. Though there is much work to be done, we have come a long way due to the work of these humble women and men

Seventy Years Ago: A Tribute to WWII Veterans

December 7, 1941 – “a day that will live in infamy…” President Roosevelt’s famous words launched America’s participation in a war that would claim millions of lives, reshape empires and usher in the nuclear age. On December 11, Hitler declared war on the USA, even though Roosevelt did not include Germany in the December 8th address to Congress. America was now allied with Great Britain and the Soviet Union in war that spanned every time zone and engulfed scores of nations.

Advent is a fitting time to give thanks to God for the gift of the Christ and the message of love and peace Jesus brings to the world. It is also an appropriate moment to thank the surviving WWII veterans for their service. There are fewer representatives of this “Greatest Generation” with us with each passing day. I was sad to hear the Pearl Harbor events are now scaled back – there are too few survivors left to sustain larger commemorations.

In thanking these veterans we are not glorifying war or nostalgically trying to reify some mythic past. There is nothing “good” about war. It is a sign of human sin and failure, a reminder of our rebellion against love and truth and our deep capacity for violence. The only good that comes out of war is the defeat of powers that would enslave humankind. Good is also found in the innumerable acts of bravery and kindness that take place in the midst of the night and fog of battle. Yes, it was good that Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany were defeated. In order to achieve this, many men and women risked life and limb for years and returned home with emotional and physical scars. Most of these veterans sublimated the hurts and set about building the greatest era of economic prosperity in world history. Some returned to battle just years later, fighting an awful war of attrition in Korea.

December 7 is a day to remember courage, sacrifice and a generation that bequeathed liberty to much of the world. Alas, we have squandered much of this heritage. Perhaps in this moment of reflection we can remember those virtues that built our prosperity: hard work, thinking of others more than ourselves and partnering with others to confront challenges. I think our “public servants” in both parties can learn from our vets. A little more sacrifice (instead of another vacation, Mr. President), a lot more cooperation (are you listening Mr. Reid and Mr. Boehner?) and a renewal of concern for the future instead of our immediate comfort are the best ways we can say, “thank you” to our veterans – and “bless you” to future generations.

Let’s express appreciation to our veterans and allow the spirit of Advent to foster consideration of our deepest virtues. Perhaps 2011 will mark the advent of a new era of cooperation and service, with reverence for God and respect for our neighbors creating joyful communities.