Retreat from Responsibility

June 09, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris -- The enormous television and press coverage of Monday's ceremonies in Normandy for once enhanced the significance of an event rather than bloated it.

The coverage had the unexpected result of recalling to an older generation, and revealing to a younger one, what prodigies people are capable of when they work for a common purpose, deeply felt.

An impressed son of a friend of mine said to his father, ''But if we could put 200,000 men ashore in one day, against that resistance, why can't we do something about Bosnia?'' There were 11,000 Allied casualties in that one day, on those four beaches. Why are people now so fearful of risks, of casualties -- and of the responsibility for shaping events?

The carnage of the Normandy beaches and of what followed, and the equivalent horrors of the island campaigns in the Pacific and the Burmese jungle, did not leave the Allied powers spent, or deprive them of their capacity to meet costly responsibilities. They willingly went to war in Korea five years after the world war ended. That war became unpopular, but only because it had turned into a stalemate.

For Americans, Vietnam was, of course, the great turning point. Most say this was because it was a televised war. The real reason is that from the start the public lacked commitment to the political cause in Vietnam. That is why the governments of the period escalated in secret and lied to the public about the extent of the war and the progress being made.

This in turn rebounded when the public withdrew its trust from its leaders. To this day, the American political class has not entirely recovered that trust.

However, while Vietnam can explain a faltering of the American government's will when confronted with the possibility of another unpopular war, it does not explain a retreat from responsibility that today takes individual as well as public forms. Individuals plead that they are not accountable for their lives because their upbringing was flawed, their parents inadequate or abusive, or because their color or sex invites discrimination.

The public form this takes is a diffusion of responsibility through so many bureaucratic layers that it disappears. It is actually a denial of responsibility for a president or other high official to say ''I am responsible'' when a Ranger unit is shot up in Somalia, an American helicopter is brought down by friendly fire, Marines are blown up in Lebanon or an American warship shoots down a civilian airliner.

Attorney General Janet Reno said she is responsible for the catastrophe that ended the siege of cultists in Waco, Texas, last year. Did she not make her decision on the recommendation of experienced law officers? Are captains of United States ships, or commanders of infantry or Marine formations, no longer individually accountable for the consequences of their orders?

The example of the Normandy beaches is of responsibility individually as well as collectively assumed, in the face of horror. Omaha was the worst of the beaches, the water red with blood, the landings obstructed by the floating American dead. The troops following ran over them, which was the worst of the horror. Their commanders said ''Go! Go! Get beyond the beach or die!''

They went, although it was a near thing. Their predecessors at Anzio, in January, had not gotten off the beach. They had a cautious commander. They were pinned there and did not break out until four months later. But their commander was relieved and replaced.

The response to irresponsibility is recognition that you don't live forever. Americans today don't like that idea. But understanding it is crucial to how you conduct the life you have.

One of the Ranger veterans at the Pointe du Hoc said Monday that when he first saw those cliffs, he thought he could only die there, so he would have to give a good account of himself.

Cornelius Ryan tells of a commando officer off Juno, the Canadians' beach, who, when the landing craft came under fire and everyone else took cover, walked up and down on the foredeck with his stick under his arm. ''I thought it was the thing to do,'' he said afterward.

What today has been lost is a grasp of the fact that we can do nothing about dying -- or living -- except to do it well.

8, William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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