June 17, 2004
BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
The 60th commemoration of D-Day, including President Bush's appropriate speech at Normandy, found some of us seeking comparisons between the wartime America of six decades ago with that of today.
My memories of World War II are rooted in the innocence and wonder of childhood but they are vivid. The talk in my parents' restaurants in Butte, Montana, was about "our boys" and their chances of making it home, would the war last, rationing, and the latest news from "the front." I remember both the quiet and always private prayers as well as the hushed, worried, but never frightened conversations. The assuring leadership of President Roosevelt denied fear. The commonness of purpose, community, is what I recall best and, come to think of it, have missed the most. The spirit of sacrifice and purpose was in our slogans and songs: Buy War Bonds, Uncle Sam Needs You, I'll Be Home for Christmas, Don't Get Around Much Anymore, and Irving Berlin's God Bless America. By spring of 1943 twelve million volunteers had assumed the tasks of air raid wardens, medics, fire and policeómen and women, part-time and full-time, pulling together. Sixteen million people were mobilized into our Armed Services. Four and a half million women doubled the work force. As children, we too participated by saving our pennies and buying War Stamps at school. Taxes were increased significantly; most notably the Victory Tax, a five percent surcharge on purchases, and the 80-percent excess profits tax imposed upon industry. From 1942 until the war's conclusion in 1945, Americans experienced the most concerted effort by a free government to enforce scarcity and restrain inflation. Those who made it work assumed the valued title -- patriots.
Sixty years following the Allied landing in Europe at Normandy, America is again under challenge. George W. Bush and John Kerry are both correct -- we are at war. The concept is difficult because of the elusiveness of the threat. This is not our father's war. Both we and the war are different now. The thrift ethic has dissipated, volunteerism is seldom voluntary, consumerism and waste have generated both profit and chagrin; the federal government is distained by those who dare to lay unique claim to patriotism.
To win this war against terrorists will require a measure of the spirit of awareness, caution and sacrifice so ably demonstrated by our parents and grandparents. Most critical, however, is the imperative for wise, thoughtful, healing, patient leadership from the White House.
For a brief few months following the horrible events of September 11, 2001, we Americans had begun to move toward commonality of purpose. Initially the willingness of our citizens to mobilize seemed everywhere. We all flew the flag and, regardless of political ideology, supported our president. The only blemish on our solidarity seemed to be the Reverends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson angrily telling us September 11th was probably what America deserved.
The launch of our military blitz against Osama Bin Ladin in Afghanistan had virtually unanimous, bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress. Then...the Administration, unable to recognize the imperative for unity here at home as well as abroad among our historic friends, blundered...badly. Rather than concentrating our military efforts against those who had attacked us, George W. Bush broadened the conflict. The President, in a speech to the Congress, and the Secretary of State, in remarks at the United Nations, misled us about the reason for attacking Iraq. Our Department of Homeland Security confused the terrorism threat with its silly pronouncements of multi-colored alerts. The Justice Department enlisted civilians in its abortive attempt to turn us into spies against our own neighbors with its TIPS program. Vice President Cheney sneeringly derided proposed conservation methods as ineffective and nothing more than " personal virtue." President Bush urged us not to save but to spend, to fly, to burn fuel, and above all to be fearful. Americans witnessed our "war-time President" spending more days either on vacation or campaigning for re-election than at his desk guiding us in our time of peril.
People and events today are, of course, different than they were those 60 years ago, but this generation, prepared to sacrifice, received instead a challenge from the White House to shop 'til we dropped. While brave Americans are sacrificing with many killed in the war in Iraq, we are gouged by big energy companies, and now we listen to tapes of Enron's executives laughing together about the fleecing they gave us. The federal penalties, it appears, are the continuation of enormous tax cuts for these largest corporations.
One would be naïve to assume that today's culture can mirror that of the Iwo Jima generation. However, following the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and Twin Towers, Americans were prepared to respond to the challenge. Tragically that opportunity has been squandered by those at the highest levels.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at The University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West
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