We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
These words are the preamble of Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson that we celebrate today.
Jefferson’s preamble states the principals upon which our founders based our nascent and highly experimental government and which we as Americans look to for our identity as a Nation and as citizens. He states without exception of any kind that we all are entitled to the same basic human rights. There are no peoples excluded; he makes no distinctions. Regardless of nationality, color of skin, wealth, religion, or any other factor. Every human is given these rights at birth and they cannot be taken away.
In a long list that follows the preamble the Declaration also seeks to give moral justification for the coming War for Independence. No King or any other form of government shall retain it’s authority if it limits, attempts to revoke, or deprives its citizens of these most basic of human rights. Any government that does so has lost its moral authority and War to overthrow it is therefore justified.
On this Independence Day, following my return from a tour of the Battle of the Bulge, I can’t help but think about the morality of the War my father fought in and survived. I also can’t help but wonder if he felt it was worth all the suffering, and loss of life he saw.
Although I abhor violence in general and especially against another person, I also believe that war is not always avoidable and is sometimes necessary. When necessary, I think it’s possible war can be moral and just. I will quote historian Eric Berlund here:
“I find it almost incomprehensible that anyone would claim to discover moral ambiguity in World War II….Machiavelli…was quite right when describing a necessary war as a just war. If World War II was not necessary, no war has been.”
In the consideration of the morality of WWII on the basis of necessity, it is the final outcome we must look at. Japanese and German expansion was stopped. Most (though not all) the liberated nations were allowed self-determination when the war ended. The extermination of the Jews by the Nazis was stopped.
I do not fail to recognize that there were subtleties, political scheming and historical context that I have not fully explored nor explained. I acknowledge that there were approximately 60 million casualties of the War (civilian and military in both theaters) and that those casualties were most assuredly deprived of self-determination as wells as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. However, I also acknowledge that some of the casualties were aggressors of various shades of grey, some were innocent bystanders whose innocence may also bear various shades of gray, and some were soldiers also with varying degrees of commitment to their government and the causes for which they were expected to fight.
I also recognize that America and our Allies did not always stand on high moral ground, either. Some of what was done was not necessary, may have been retaliatory, or resulted more killing and death (not only of civilians and soldiers, but of the Jews in the camps). I acknowledge that American and Allied soldiers committed numerous immoral atrocities for which there can be no justification.
But, when dragged into the conflict, America stayed true to it’s national identity and founding statements and did what I believe to be it’s best – despite numerous and wildly competing interests – to ensure that the survivors of the fight (even our enemies) were permitted the right to governmental self-determinacy and that the civilians were given the opportunity to seek their natural born rights to Life, Liberty, and Happiness.
Of course, because I am so recently returned from my Battle of the Bulge tour tracing my father’s time in Europe in WWII, I also turn my thoughts to a more personal level.
My father, being of both Catholic and Jewish German heritage (his father was a German Catholic and his mother a German Jew) was both conflicted and proud to be sent to Germany as a soldier. I suspect that part of his inner conflict was the fear that he’d, as he explained to my mother, face some unknown Catholic German cousin across a battlefield. Although he never said so that I’m aware of, I think he may have also been glad to go to the defense of other unknown Jewish German cousins.
That doesn’t mean he didn’t have bad memories or that his feelings about his service during the War were uncomplicated. He never touched another gun again after he was discharged. My mother has a few stories that illustrate that fact.
Dad also never hunted. But probably because it didn’t involve a gun, he enjoyed fishing. He would keep only what he could eat, and carefully returned the rest, alive, to the waters. Even if that meant holding it, and once that I saw stroking it, till it felt able to swim.
I’m sure that his War memories affected him in countless ways that he kept hidden from his family. We never knew for certain what he did in WWII because he almost never talked about it. He could trot out an amusing story or maybe two, but with one exception on one occasion that amounted to one sentence, he never disclosed anything else. We never will know for absolute sure what he experienced or what he suffered. He never told us what he saw or what he thought about it. At the end of his life he experienced flashbacks to his frightening time lost behind the German front lines with perhaps ten other GI’s.
What I cannot forget is that he was 19 years plus two and a half months old when the Battle of the Bulge started. Hardly a child, but neither was he a man. Most of the guys in the 106th were similarly young. As a young man he went through fire in the service of his country and it’s founding principals that all humans are born with the right to live their life in freedom and to achieve happiness. Despite his young age, he learned by the most brutal example possible that serving justice sometimes means doing things you’d rather not have to do, but do it anyways, because it’s the right thing to do.
After the war, if my father was proud of anything, it was that he didn’t waver in his duty, followed orders, survived to come home, and did what he believed was necessary and what had to be done.
Here is a quote by John Davis, from his book “Up Close; a Scout’s Story – From the Battle of the Bulge to the Siegfried Line.”. Like my father, Davis was a veteran of the 106th Infantry. I think this perfectly describes what I suspect my father felt after he returned home from War as he grew up, lived his life, aged, and eventually slowed down in his final years.
“I had experienced the joy of many hours over the course of my life, and it was not lost on me that this was a privilege that many others, perhaps more deserving than I, did not receive. I once felt that invisible strings bound me irrevocably to the guys with whom I served, the living as well as the dead. These were strings that only I could see, but I took them and tied them to my fingers and wore them for a lifetime as a reminder of all the blessings I received that so many others did not.
My good fortune created a sense of obligation that I carried always. I tried to be a good man, a loyal husband, an attentive father, an involved citizen. …Not to have done so would have been an affront to the memory of all the guys I left behind.”
I wish us all a Happy Independence Day, and hope you all found some Happiness in your celebration of our Freedoms. In today’s divisive political climate, I pray that this nation can again pull together to do the hard work that lies before us, for it must be done, and I pray that War will not be the driving force for that necessity.