Renewed appreciation for 'greatest generation'

May 30, 2004|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - Back home, Bing Crosby had a new movie out, Going My Way. A singer named Nat Cole had released his first hit, "Straighten Up And Fly Right." And 176,000 Allied soldiers stepped into the surf off the French province of Normandy into a hail of bullets. Hell, never too tightly tethered in those years, broke loose.

This was 1944.

And of course, the world is different now. The big movie this week is The Day After Tomorrow. The big song is a number called "Naughty Girl," by a woman named Beyonce.

But the difference is not told simply in the change in movies and music, or by a gap six decades' long. Its true measure is in the contrast between a global clash of nation-states and a campaign of terror waged by a small group of Islamic radicals.

It's a contrast that's heightened by an interesting confluence of events. You have the 60th anniversary of the Normandy invasion on June 6. You have Memorial Day weekend. You have the dedication of a monument in Washington to the generation that fought World War II.

And you have this week's announcement by Attorney General John Ashcroft of the latest news from the new war, the one against terror. Citing credible intelligence from multiple sources, he warns that terrorists plan to "hit the United States hard" within the coming months. He gives the names and images of seven individuals we are to watch for.

The specificity of it shakes you in a way previous warnings - ambiguous admonitions about somebody planning something sometime somewhere - never could. Yet even at that, we still aren't given much to work with, are we? Names. Fuzzy faces. Fear.

Take it as a reminder of the limitations of this thing we call the War on Terror. Meaning both the limitations of the actual term and the limitations of the actual "war." That word, after all, has historically denoted a clashing of armies, combat against any enemy seen hunkered down in the trees, met head on in some previously pastoral field.

But unless you count the bungled invasion of Iraq - and I assuredly do not - the War on Terror has contained little of that. Yes, there was the invasion of Afghanistan and the toppling of the Taliban, with Osama bin Laden fleeing to a mountain stronghold. Beyond that, however, the "war" is - or so we are told - fought through covert action and secret analysis, from which some government functionary periodically lifts his or her head to update the color chart that tells us how frightened to be on any given day. Or to send us out to buy duct tape.

So what is our part in that war? What's our patriotic duty? To keep shopping?

It's enough to make you envy the plain clarity of the war that began to turn on a foggy dawn in 1944.

It is passing slowly from living memory. Those who went through it are in their 80s and 90s now, frail and infirm and rapidly dying. And as we watch them go, we discover that for all the ways the world has changed, for all the ways the fight has changed, the core of it has not changed at all.

Meaning that fanaticism is still fanaticism whether it wears a swastika or quotes the Quran. So there is, even at this late date, much to learn from old men who once jumped from the sky and defended bridges and stormed a beach. And from old women who once rationed nylon and collected paper and built battleships.

Their lives hold lessons in toughness and faith we'd do well to remember as we learn to fight this shadowy new fight in which we are told to go about our routines and yet beware. Relax, but watch out.

And isn't it ironic that we discover the importance of these lessons just as the teachers are leaving us? In a best-selling book, a movie, a TV miniseries and now this memorial, we have honored them and thanked them. But maybe it's only now, with fanaticism confronting us, that we can finally and fully appreciate them.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun.

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