The Last Warriors

Posted Sept. 01, 2010, at 6:11 p.m.

Today marks the 65th anniversary of the official end of World War II, when Japan formally surrendered to the United States. There is an urgency in marking this date, because those who served are dying at a rate of 1,000 a day. The 18-year-old who enlisted after Pearl Harbor is 86 today. The 18-year-old drafted before D-Day is 84.

The war was not of America’s choosing, but when it was thrust upon us, the U.S. responded appropriately. The term deployment had little meaning. These men and women carried on until the job was completed.

Those who served were tough. If they were not before, they became so. Reporters who have sat for an hour or so with a World War II veteran often will hear stories that wives, sons and daughters never heard. The voices are hushed, the eyes downcast, as they describe what it was like when fighter planes strafed the battleship, when tracer bullets lit up the night as they whistled over the foxhole, when losing a buddy often meant watching him die, when fatigue was so great that sleeping standing up was not an exaggeration. Yet these veterans rarely talk about how these things made them feel. They remain reticent about that, leaving the listener to infer and imagine.

Movies of the time, with actors who never saw combat, imbued the war with glory, courage, patriotism and moral certitude. Those who served rarely, if ever, paint their experience with those colors. Mostly, they say, they had a job to do — a very difficult, dangerous, often terrifying job to do — and they did it.

The 20th century rightly is called the American century. World War II had a lot to do with U.S. dominance on the world stage. The U.S. economy towered over Europe’s after the war in part because much of that continent was in ruins. The returning servicemen and women made up for lost time and got married, had babies and bought houses, launching an economic expansion that seemed endless.

Some 16 million Americans served in that war, when the nation’s population was 132 million. When you factor in girlfriends, wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters and friends, the war’s impact was not made through newspaper stories and newsreel clips; it was felt through relationships.

While we do well to honor the sacrifice of those who served, we should not look back through rose-colored glasses. Many who fought never fully recovered, physically or psychologically. Some turned to alcohol, some kept their horrors locked away in their minds. Many were able to get past the war, and even tap what they learned about themselves in that crucible to tackle jobs and business startups.

Those men and women did not choose their moment, but they embraced it. The generations that have followed silently wonder whether they would have measured up in quite the same way. And so we are wise to honor them, and thank them.

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