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A State of Mind: Earn It!

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The commemorations of the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings on Normandy last week, coming in such close proximity to Father’s Day, got me to thinking about Larry McNew. 

Larry McNew was from northern Minnesota, and in 1944 he was a member of Company C of the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 11th Airborne. He did not land at Normandy. Instead, he and his “band of brothers,” which included my father, were sent to the Philippines to engage Japanese forces defending the island of Leyte.

During the night of Dec. 16, 1944, McNew was with my father providing rifle support for two other men manning a machine gun. The Japanese attacked with hand grenades. One grenade landed in my father’s lap. He managed to toss it out of his foxhole before it exploded; when it did, he was hit in the arm by just a single fragment. 

McNew was not so lucky in clearing a second grenade. He left behind his wife Lucille. In addition, he had become a father after he had been deployed to the South Pacific. His daughter Bonnie never met her father. 

PFC Larry Arthur McNew didn’t make it home. He was buried in the American Cemetery in Manilla.

I tell this story partly to honor McNew’s personal sacrifice, which was ultimate. I also tell it to honor his generation of Americans — who at this point are, or were, our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents — a group the journalist Tom Brokaw dubbed “The Greatest Generation” in his book by that title. 

And I tell it to emphasize what that generation of Americans did after the war.

The Greatest Generation was forged in the crucible of the Great Depression. The hard times made them frugal, tough, and resilient. 

Just when things started to brighten for them economically, after a decade of stagnation, fascist totalitarian and imperial regimes arose in Europe and the Pacific, creating the worst of all possible strategic situations: America was flanked by two formidable existential military threats. 

Although the ultimate outcome of the war was uncertain at the beginning, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor “loosed the fateful lightning” of America’s sword. That brought along with it a huge wave of pent-up economic and industrial energy. 

In the end, Germany and Japan simply could not match the Greatest Generation’s energy and the nation’s industrial might. A scene in the video series “Band of Brothers” emphasized the point well. A paratrooper, watching captured German units moving to the rear using horse-drawn wagons, berates them from the bed of a “deuce and-a-half” Army truck: “Hey you! . . . you stupid kraut bas***rds! Say hello to Ford and General f***ing Motors! . . . You have horses. . . .  What were you thinking?”

The job done, the members of the Greatest Generation came home. They hung their uniforms in the closet and never put them on again. They were in the truest sense citizen soldiers. The war was over. They celebrated, then began to pick up their interrupted lives. Over the next decade they built an economy that was unrivaled in the history of the world in its vibrancy.

And when they reached middle age, rather than slowing down, they listened to a young president, the first of their generation in that office, challenge them to the hard but exciting task of putting humans on the moon. They made that project look almost effortless.

The Greatest Generation was not perfect. They made mistakes. Perhaps one of them was that they were modest to a fault. To them, a common refrain was the “best of us are still over there,” meaning the dead like McNew, the ones left behind but never forgotten. 

Talking about their experiences in the war was not their thing, especially if it involved them personally; the heroes were always the other guy (even if that guy had been captured). As Brokaw pointed out, they didn’t think that what they did was that special because everyone else was doing it too. 

A common purpose drove the Greatest Generation to do the best they could. And, according to Brokaw, they adhered to common values — duty, honor, economy, courage, service, love of family, love of country, and above all, responsibility for oneself. 

What would they make of the state of things today, with the lying, the deceit, the cowardice, the lack of honor, the avoidance of personal responsibility, the glorification of war in video games, the general lack of respect for others, the attacks on the institutions in which they so truly believed, on the rule of law itself?

President Biden’s remarks at the 80th anniversary in Normandy reminded me of the film “Saving Private Ryan.” If you are not familiar with that film, an Army captain and seven men are sent to retrieve a paratrooper fighting in France because his three brothers have been killed in combat and as the surviving son he is to be sent home. Near the end of the film, as Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) is dying of his wounds, he whispers to Pvt. James Ryan (Matt Damon) “You earn this,” meaning the lives of Miller himself and the five members of the squad who have been killed. 

Can we say the same for ourselves? Are we worthy of the sacrifices made by the Greatest Generation? Can we “earn it”? I’d like to think the common values Brokaw mentioned are still within us generations that remain.

Oh, by the way, my name is Larry, not Lawrence. My father insisted on that.