One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
By Tom Gordon
Almost five years ago, friends Rick Swagler, George Sarris, Bob Blalock, and I traveled to Omaha Beach. It was a breezy September day, and the bloodiest of the D-Day battle sites was mostly empty, save for some Dutch tourists, a group of French schoolchildren on a field trip, and a couple of folks in carts pulled along the sand by trotting horses.
As it was, the setting lent itself to solitude and reflection on what had happened there on June 6, 1944, and I think solitude and reflection were what Bob was seeking. You see, his father, Bill, was at Omaha with the 1st Infantry Division, the Army’s “Big Red One.” Bill Blalock never talked about the experience, or the others he had during the war’s remaining months, so Bob could only imagine what it had been like. And I imagine he did some imagining as he took a long walk alone along a mostly deserted stretch of the beach.
It’s been said, again and again, how quickly the ranks of World War II veterans are diminishing, and last month’s observance of D-Day’s 70th anniversary, with old soldiers using canes, walkers, and wheelchairs, was a reminder of that. At the same time, a couple of other trends are underway: those of us who are the children of WWII vets are disappearing, and the ranks of those who have served in the military, regardless of when they did it, are heading down as well.
If you grew up in the 1950s, I’ll bet you were like me in that you had friends and relatives whose fathers had been in uniform during World War II. My dad and his older brother, my Uncle Lew, had deployed in the Army and fought the Germans. I can recall three uncles who were in the Navy, one of whom, Neil, talked only a little about the kamikaze attacks he had seen in the Pacific. Another uncle, Terrell, was part of D-Day, in a boat that retrieved bodies of soldiers who died before they hit the beaches. The only WWII vet in my family still living is my Uncle George, who was in the Marines in the Pacific and came home with memories that gave him recurring nightmares. We periodically correspond, and in his most recent letter, he recalled the relief he and his buddies felt when it seemed Japan was going to throw in the towel. “After whatever atomic bomb was dropped and the Japs said they would surrender if they could keep their emperor, we all yelled out, ‘Sure! Of course! Wow!’,” Uncle George wrote. “We knew we [1st Marine Division] were to be part of the second assault landing on Japan and would be among the millions of casualties.”
Of course, we live in a different time now. But wars have not disappeared, and men and women from America are still fighting them. The difference is that we have a volunteer military, and fewer folks are fighting our wars. Consider these numbers: Since 9/11, more than 43,000 Alabamians in uniform have deployed, most of them to Iraq and Afghanistan, and many of them have deployed more than once. One of those is Jeremy Hollis from the northwest Alabama town of Sulligent, who was one of my tent mates when I was embedded as a reporter in Iraq in 2003 with the Alabama National Guard’s 877th Engineer Battalion. Last month, this father of two daughters flew to Afghanistan with two 877th companies, and this overseas assignment will be his second in Afghanistan.
Forty-three thousand. That amounts to less than 1 percent of our state’s population. Nationwide, the number of folks who have deployed since 9/11 is about 2.6 million, and that, too, is less than 1 percent of the population. By contrast, during the much larger and truly global World War II, nearly 300,000 Alabama men alone were in uniform. That total was about 10 percent of the state’s population in 1940. By 1945, when Americans numbered about 140 million, about 9 percent of the population—more than 12 million men and women—were in the military.
Because it was so widespread, World War II era military service was a thread that knitted together just about everybody. It meant that on the 30th anniversary year of D-Day, 1974, five of the seven men in Alabama’s U.S. House delegation—three Democrats and two Republicans—had served during the years the U.S. was in the “Good War.” One of the five, Democrat Bill Nichols, had lost a leg in Germany. A common thread of military service does not characterize Alabama’s congressional delegation, or the Congress, that we have today.
Now don’t get me wrong. I think you and I both feel the world will be far better when we are no longer honoring new groups of veterans because new wars keep breaking out. Nonetheless, some people a lot smarter than I am have wondered if our national fabric would be a lot less frayed if more of us, especially those who represent us, had more things in common.
Seventy years ago, military service was one of those things.