“I saw a woman in Central Park today wearing a T-shirt that said ‘America Was Never Great,’” a friend of mine tweeted over the weekend. I wasn’t surprised to hear it. My country contains many people who are contemptuous of its past, some of whom are no less dismissive of the men and women who endeavor to ensure that it will have a future. (Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep/Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap.) All they can see are the flaws, of which there were and are many—many flaws and much honor.
At no time am I more intensely aware of that honor, and the fearful toll that it exacted, than on Memorial Day. Mrs. T and I watched The Longest Day a couple of nights ago, and I found myself thinking: could I ever have done anything like that? I hope so, but I’ll never know, for history did not demand it of me.
And what did I miss, other than stark terror and the ever-present possibility of violent death? Justice Holmes, who fought and was wounded three times in the Civil War, summed it up in a speech that he gave on this day in 1884: “I think that, as life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.”
Whenever I read those words, I think of my late father, who served in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Though he never saw combat, he stood ready to do his duty, and I have no doubt that he would have done it without hesitation, just as he unhesitatingly saved me from drowning at the risk of his own life when I was a child. He was that kind of man. I hope I would have been the same kind under similar circumstances—but I’ll never know.
That is why I overflow with respect for those who, like my father, did what they had to do when their country asked them to do it. More than anyone else save for the Founders themselves, they made America great. I have no doubt—none whatsoever—that they always will.
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“The Battle of Midway,” an official 1942 war documentary directed by John Ford. Some of the combat footage was shot by Ford himself with a handheld movie camera: