Remembering wartime unity, national purpose, now long gone

Today's America shows few signs of either the single-minded mobilization of national strength or the unity of purpose at home that marked the remarkable victory over fascism half a century ago

November 15, 2013|By Jules Witcover

Another Veterans Day has come and gone, celebrating the millions of Americans who served in the so-called War to End All Wars and all the wars since.

The day was originally observed as Armistice Day, commemorating the all-quiet on the Western Front in France in November 1918. American troops had been involved there for barely more than a year and a half, and in actual combat in the trenches for only about eight months. The popular song kicking off the U.S. entry boasted, "We'll be over, we're coming over, and we won't come back till it's over, over there."

The name by necessity evolved into Veterans Day because it had to embrace not just the doughboys of the First World War but the GIs of the second one, which started (for the U.S.) 23 years later after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on "the day which will live in infamy," Dec.7, 1941.

World War I was certainly "great" in terms of the huge devastation wrought in the trench warfare stalemate. It was broken only when the weight of the American "arsenal of democracy" was finally brought to bear on the front. And obviously it didn't end further battlefield mayhem, which has continued unabated, even during the so-called Cold War between the late Soviet Union and the Western allies.

Somehow, once the immense power of atomic and nuclear weapons was so emphatically demonstrated in the American bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the major powers managed to avoid a nuclear war that could well have ended all wars, not to mention the human race itself.

A close call came half a century ago when the Soviet Union and the United States came to the brink in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Armageddon was dodged when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev allegedly "blinked" and withdrew the Russian missiles. It was disclosed only later that he did so after President Kennedy, with a wink of his own, agreed to remove obsolescent American missiles aimed at the Soviets from Turkey.

On Monday, the nation's television airwaves were filled with remembrances of World Wars I and II, most notably re-runs on some public television channels of the epic "Victory at Sea" series that chronicled American sea power as well as the fighting in the air and on land that finally ended the Second World War.

The central theme was the gradual gathering not only of U.S. armed might but also the mobilization of American will, unity and patriotism that turned the home front into one mighty and committed effort in the cause of human and political freedom across the globe.

As arresting as the films of combat in all arenas were, the pictures of a home front in undiluted dedication to the war effort as the nation's human and material resources relentlessly helped turn the tide. Cameras captured not only the battleground anguish; they also recorded the eruption of sheer joy and pride at the liberation of Paris, the Japanese surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri, and the smiling, tearful reunions of returning GIs and loved ones at American ports on east and west coasts.

Now, 68 years after that hopeful time, President Obama at Arlington Cemetery could only report that America's longest war, a dozen years after 9/11, is scheduled to end next year, with the withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan. What was achieved in less than four years of American combat in World War II has yet to be accomplished there, with life as usual going on at home.

Today, America shows few signs of either the single-minded mobilization of national strength or the unity of purpose at home that marked the remarkable victory over fascism half a century ago. Perhaps the threat of fanatic terrorism seems too diffuse and occasional to generate the old sense of unified national purpose.

In its place, false patriotism and petty partisanship drive much of our politics and public spirit, as a relatively small few in uniform and their families continue to bear the burdens of oft-disputed American commitments abroad.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is
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