When all the world is picking a fight, where do we fall in?

June 06, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

Most of the men who first hit Omaha Beach died. They probably knew they would die, and they went anyway. I guess they didn't have any choice. They were scared, but still they came. They stormed the beach and they died. And more kept coming. And more died.

And the dying was ugly and horrible and cruel, as it always is in war.

But the dying was for a reason, for a cause, even a noble cause. And, in the end, the men who hit the beach prevailed, and the world was forever changed.

The changing-of-the-world part is what makes the Normandy invasion important. It's why there's so much celebration. Good beat evil -- and pretty dramatically, too. And so, good gets to commemorate the triumph.

But what makes the invasion important to me -- what compels me to watch every grainy D-Day retrospective I can lay eyes on -- is the willingness of those men to give up their lives for a cause.

What cause, I find myself wondering, is worth dying for now?

It's a question I wish Bill Clinton would address today in his speech. It's an essential question, maybe the essential question.

As he speaks, Clinton will hear again from the know-nothings that he was a draft dodger. He was, of course. He dodged the draft that would have put him in a bad, indefensible war. He might have died, as thousands did, for nothing. I'm comforted having a president who doesn't believe that war is always the best option.

What is worth going to war for? Meaning: What is worth dying for?

Your family, sure. Your country, if attacked, of course. Your way of life, maybe. Better dead than red, they used to say.

When I was young, I think I would have died for a belief. For instance, I might have gone off to Spain in the '30s to fight fascism. I might have thought it was not only just, but also romantic. Now, I know fighting is never romantic.

Sometimes, it's necessary and just, though. But when?

Looking back, it's obvious that stopping Hitler was a worthwhile and just venture. It's obvious, too, that storming the beaches was to place yourself at the greatest possible risk. If you've seen Omaha Beach, and the cliffs that overhang it, you don't need to be a military tactician to understand the danger.

I try to put myself there, and I can't quite pull it off. It goes beyond imagining. I see the grainy, black-and-white moving pictures and they seem to me surreal.

Clinton will speak of the valor of the men who fought there, and especially of those who never came home. But what does it mean for us today?

We have an army, the greatest fighting force in the world. We don't keep this huge army for self-defense, not in the literal sense anyway. Nobody, in the post-Cold War era, is going to directly attack the world's remaining superpower. Somebody, though, could jeopardize what is often called our interests.

And so, we're ready to fight, as we did in the Persian Gulf war or in Somalia. But where should we fight?

There are noble causes aplenty. Some of them make the headlines. There's ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. We have seen thousands die because they were born to one ethnic group and not to another.

There is Rwanda, where the ethnic groups are called tribes, and the bodies by the tens of thousands are set adrift down the river. We see pictures of the bodies. And we turn our heads. Often, we're not even brave enough to look.

Some would have us invade Haiti. It would be an easy, little war, I'm told, in which we could "restore democracy" to the island nation.

Innocents are being slaughtered in East Timor, wherever that is. And in Burundi, wherever that is. There are more wars, too. Always more wars.

And in North Korea, they may be building a nuclear arsenal. And they threaten to attack South Korea, where our troops are already in place. Didn't we already fight that war?

The Cold War has ended, but the world didn't get any less crazy, and people didn't get any less cruel, and dying didn't become any less painful.

Looking back 50 years ago to Normandy, it seems clear what the stakes were and what the costs were and how the two factors could be reconciled. I wonder if they'd look the same now.

Or, to put it another way, ask yourself this: On which beach would you be willing to risk your life today?

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