Long journey from Normandy to now

June 02, 1994|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Washington -- WITH D-Day celebrations this week, America relives an extraordinary voyage of change -- from World War II to today's White House, from "never again" to "not exactly."

Think of the mind-set of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower as he waited in Britain for that fated dawn on June 6, 1944, as 370,000 soldiers aboard 5,300 vessels steamed silently toward the Normandy beaches.

He was wholly sure of the morality of his -- and America's -- actions. His mind broached no questions of which side was good or which side was evil. He knew he was risking great, and perhaps cataclysmic, failure; nevertheless, he went ahead.

He knew, as he constantly told his men, that those who died TC would die for a great crusade. He and his generals were superb strategists and even devious ones; their capacity for deception in war was so great that they set up two phony armies at the Pas de Calais and had British spies busily feeding the Germans false information.

But somewhere along the way from Normandy, Verdun and Berlin, we passed from a commander in chief to a facilitator in chief -- and during that strange journey the moral mind-sets changed dramatically.

President Bill Clinton both exemplifies in himself and offers America a wholly different vision. He is certain of his personal redeeming morality, but not of the nation's.

He is most often torn in public life and in foreign policy by a relativistic moral sense that emerges out of a therapeutic, and thus not an absolutist, view that basically eschews "evil" in favor of "sickness."

He will risk for health care, but not for fights against oppression, no matter how bloody. He would rather see people die than use cunning strategy -- the legalistic mind!

He thinks Americans died in Vietnam (in most wars of our times?) for nothing. He is largely incapable of tactics and strategy, if only because such present-day "actors" on the stage, such as the Haitian military and the Somali warlords, are looked upon as bothersome ants taking him away from health care.

Finally, he and his ideological group think little about the kind of clear idea of human freedom that informed World War II thinking. They like to say things such as, "What is important is whether you feel free."

And so, when we see Bill Clinton of Arkansas standing in various sacred spots of Europe this week, and when we think of Dwight D. Eisenhower of Kansas -- boys from America's quintessential heartland, both -- how are we to explain the journey from one to the other?

Part can be explained by the fact that Johnny came marching home from World War II tired of war and its bloody honor; he focused on personal life, giving his children everything he didn't have. The next generations moved through a permissive child-raising that certainly Dwight D. Eisenhower and his generation never knew, toward "having everything."

Somewhere in that euphoria-without-discipline, the old ideas of moral purpose and the terrible willingness to risk all for great causes was mislaid, lost, forgotten.

Vietnam was simply the wanton wastefulness of a rich and supposedly invulnerable country -- but the American youth of the 1960s and '70s saw it as proof that their elders, professing such morality, were the imperialists and brutes that the communist alternative ideology of the 20th century had been telling them.

One does not have to be a "Red-baiter" to say that America suffered an epochal cultural invasion of Marxist ideas in this century, which still profoundly affect us, just as our democratic ideas infiltrated them. The old American "right to live free" came to be, under their influences, the right to jobs, housing, and, finally, American ideas of therapy in place of judgmentalism or even force in the face of aggression.

Veteran community organizer Harry Boyte, the author of "Commonwealth" and an inspired voice for the revival of community in America, traces these changes to "a new political ideology of care in the 1990s." He sees the Clinton administration in particular as expanding "a language of private experience and shared vulnerabilities into a personalized utopianism, writ large. The ultimate logic of intimate politics is to refashion the nation as a limitless encounter-group session."

That's a long road from Tipperary and a long way from Omaha Beach -- it's a long journey from the real reality of that day on the beaches of 1944 to the virtual reality of the therapy session of America today.

No one believes we should, or could, go back to Ike -- but did we have to come as far as we have?

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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