Listen To Article
I’ve been glued to PBS most nights this week. I’m not obsessed with war. While I can’t quite make the full jump to all out pacifism–I’m getting closer. I don’t bleed red, white, and blue, although I do believe that American democracy is the best imperfect political system on the planet. I watch these shows to hear about the experiences of real flesh and blood human beings. To hear them talk about being told to look to the right and the left, because most of you won’t be coming back. To hear them talk about the front gate of the Higgins boat dropping open, taking a first step, and plunging into the waist deep water with bullets flying over their heads. To see them get choked up as they talk about the unfathomable carnage. Over and over again these elderly men would say that they aren’t the heroes of the war. They were doing what they were asked to do – what they were supposed to do. More than once they said that they were the lucky ones. The real heroes, according to them, are the ones who didn’t make it 5 feet off the boat before getting cut down by German bullets; the ones who didn’t make it home.
I don’t buy the rhetoric that these people were the “greatest generation.” Every generation faces its own trials and not every one involves a World War. However, I can’t help but admire the courage and sense of duty it took to storm the beaches of Normandy. More than once I’ve wondered if I’d have the guts to the do the same. A few years before my grandfather died I somehow convinced him to record his experience in WWII. He wasn’t a part of the first wave that came into Normandy on June 6 – but he was there on June 7. He remembers seeing dead bodies floating in the water and the carnage from the previous day’s offensive. He was an engineer, running trains throughout Europe as a part of the war effort. The voice on the tape isn’t one of triumph, it’s one of solemn duty. They did what they were asked to do – nothing more. Grandpa was a patriot, he thought of himself as an American, he wore hats with flags and sent three of his four boys into the military. But he never walked in a parade, or made a big deal about his time in the military. In fact, when other relatives found out I somehow convinced him to talk about it they were shocked–it seems grandpa NEVER talked about it with anyone. One story in particular that I’ll never forget is when he talked about hitting an officer. Decked him… flat on this back. The officer was picking on a soldier who was smaller, a bit meek, maybe a little afraid. My grandpa was a big man, a strong man, and ornery son of a bitch to put it mildly. But he couldn’t stand there and let this officer pick on this poor, scared, kid. So he decked him. I guess in the middle of a World War a person can get away with a lot of things…
I hear a lot of rhetoric about leadership these days, and what is takes to be a leader. I’ve been reading some of the books that give formulaic interpretations of leadership. I’m not convinced the rhetoric I read jives with what happened on the beaches of Normandy. I’m not sure pissing your pants, calling for your mommy, or just trying to survive would qualify as leadership today. But listen to the old vets talk about those who lost their lives, those who didn’t make it 2 minutes into the landing, and they would tell you different. I’m guessing that no-one would have looked at my grandpa sitting in his garage, smoking and cussing, and said “Now there’s a leader!” But he stood up for the little guy… in the middle of war. That’s a leader. That’s a hero.