On Native Ground: WAR PAST, WAR PRESENT
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- "America's New War" seems to be in a lull right now. There's little left to bomb in Afghanistan. The Taliban have been routed. There's a new government in Kabul and Osama bin Laden and hisloyalists are on the run.
The pro-war folks are gloating now. A wonderful new formula for war has been discovered -- pay off a compliant local army to serve as your infantry while you bomb the hell out of the enemy's targets. So far, more journalists have died in Afghanistan than U.S. soldiers in combat (Editor's Note: The first U.S. serviceman to die in Afghanistan by enemy fire, U.S. Army Special Forces Sgt. 1st Class Nathan R. Chapman, was killed on Jan. 4, the day before publication of this column; a CIA agent, Johnny Spann, was killed by enemy fire in early December.).
This formula was a success in Afghanistan. Will it work in Iraq, the likely next target? Who knows?
What we do know is that this war is very different from anythingthe U.S. has experienced before. America has experienced the kind of national unity and resolve that hasn't been seen since World War II. At the same time, the war in Central Asia has been more like the relatively bloodless campaigns such as Grenada, Panama, the Gulf War, Somalia and the Balkans.
The World War II analogies fall apart quickly when you compare thecurrent conflict with the unimaginable carnage of the last (we hope) truly global war. I was recently in New Orleans, which gave me an opportunity to visit the National D-Day Museum. If you are looking for something to give you perspective on the differences and similarities between World War II and our current conflict in Central Asia, this is the place you'll find it.
The museum opened on June 6, 2000, the 56th anniversary of the Normandy invasion. It has seen nearly 400,000 visitors in its first 18 months of existence. Its popularity is well deserved, for it is the most comprehensive overview of World War II that one can get in a single place.
Why is this museum in New Orleans? Because of Andrew Jackson Higgins, the man who designed the landing craft that made amphibious operations possible. His eight factories in New Orleans built nearly 13,000 of the flat-bottomed boats that landed U.S. troops on beachheads all over the globe. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe, once told historian Steven Ambrose that Higgins was "the man who won the war for us." Adolf Hitler called Higgins "the new Noah."
Ambrose - who has chronicled the Normandy invasion and U.S. combat operations in the European Theater in books such as "Pegasus Bridge," "Band of Brothers," "D-Day" and "Citizen Soldiers" - was determined to dosomething to honor Higgins and the men who fought in World War II. The result is this 70,500-sq. ft. museum located in an old brewery in the Warehouse District of New Orleans. It cost $33 million to build and was mostly funded through private donations.
There were already about 70 people waiting for the doors to open the morning I got there. More than a few of those waiting were older people with intimate memories of the war. I was fortunate enough to be one of the first people in that day, so I had a chance to see many of the exhibits alone. The museum gets crowded in a hurry, and it's best to be there in the morning and set aside at least three or four hours to get a good look at it all.
The last surviving "Higgins Boat" shares space in the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion near the museum's entrance with other planes and vehicles used in the war. You climb a flight of stairs to the second floor, and the first thing that you see is a graphic representation showing the size of the German and Japanese armies in 1939 compared with the size of the U.S.Army, which was the 18th largest in the world at that time. A short film,"The Road to War," gives an overview of the events leading up to America'sentry into the war.
"The Home Front" exhibit has a montage of posters urging Americans to do their part for the war effort, from recycling scrap to keeping quiet about troop movements. A replica of a section of an army barracks sits across a TV showing newsreel footage of new recruits training for combat. Higgins Industries, and the boats it built, get a section of the exhibit. too.
You climb another flight of stairs where you start to see the preparations for the Normandy invasion. You can stand in a replica of a German pillbox and see the view of the Allied armada crossing the English Channel. A glider that brought troops into landing zones sits opposite maps of the invasion. Artifacts and photos donated by veterans are combined with oral histories to bring the human dimension of the assault on Hitler'sAtlantic Wall.
It's tough to imagine an operation that involves 5,333 ships, 11,000 planes and 250,000 soldiers across the English Channel or the effort it took to carry it out. A short film, "Decision To Go," shows how Eisenhower and his commanders agonized over the risks of sending the invasion force in early June 1944 and how Eisenhower prepared a statement that would be released if the invasion failed, taking full responsibility for its failure. It was a communique that was never needed.
The story of Normandy and the liberation of Europe is an amazing one. But what many forget is that there were other D-Days besides June 6,1944. In the Pacific Theater, there were 20 of them over a 44-month period in places that have become synonymous with combat at its most brutal - places like Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
The Pacific veterans have long felt that the European campaign got all the attention. The D-Day museum has finally given them their due with"The D-Day Invasions in the Pacific" wing of the museum, which opened up on December 7, 2001, the 60th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The format of the Pacific exhibit is similar to the Normandy exhibits. It begins with a giant animated map of the Pacific that summarizes the major battles and strategies of the war. A 200-foot longtimeline wall follows the major battles in the Pacific, and posters andcartoons show America's intense hatred and dehumanization of the Japanese -echoes of which we see in the depiction of Arabs in the popular media during our current conflict.
There are many reminders of the terrible price of war scattered throughout the National D-Day Museum. The exhibit that stopped me in my tracks consisted of a battered leather wallet, some stamps, a Social Security card with the word "deceased" handwritten over its front, a military driver's license and some letters. These were the remaining personal effects of Marine First Lt. Leonard Smith Isacks Jr. of New Orleans.
On Feb. 20, 1945, Isacks was just 300 yards from the beach at IwoJima when he was hit by Japanese mortar fire. He was evacuated to a hospital ship and died from his wounds the next day. He was 34 and left behind his wife Sue and his three children -- Brian, Leonard III and Susan.
The picture of Isacks' family sits on the left side of the small display in front of a handwritten letter from one of his children. In the middle are two letters -- his last -- to his wife and his children. At right, above a dish filled with the black volcanic soil of Iwo Jima, is the telegram from the War Department that notified Sue Isacks that her husband was dead.
More than 300,000 American families received that dreaded telegram during the war. You then realize how many lives were altered -- the children grew up fatherless, the wives who lost their husbands, the parents who had to bury their sons, the brothers and sisters who lost a sibling and most of all, the hopes and dreams of young men that were snuffed out in places all over the globe. World War II was the last war that required total sacrifice andcommitment from every American, the extent of which is made very clear inthe National D-Day Museum. We haven't seen that kind of total sacrifice and commitment since then.
It would be hard to imagine present-day America -- a place that accepts plenty as its birthright -- submitting to the rationing of everything from shoes and tires to coffee and meat. There haven't been lines of people in front of Army and Navy recruiting offices and the return of the draft is extremely unlikely. With the exception of the families who lost loved ones in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania; the families ofthe anthrax victims and the families of the servicemen who've died so farin Central Asia, most Americans have experienced few direct hardships fromthis new war.
Could we again see the unity of purpose that World War II-eraAmerica had? Every generation of Americans have risen to all sorts of challenges in war and peace, and I have no reason to believe that things would be different today. It's just that we haven't been challenged to do so by our leaders.
Aside from the massive and spontaneous outpouring of aid for theSept. 11 victims, Americans have not had to dig deep and sacrifice the way those on the American home front did in World War II. Instead of conserving resources for the war effort, we're urged to go on trips and spend more money at the malls to keep the economy from collapse. And the post-Sept.11 stampede by the corporate lobbyists in Washington to get their share of subsidies and tax cuts have shown once again the validity of Robert LaFollette's words: "Wealth has never yet sacrificed itself on the altar of patriotism."
President Bush recently said that 2002 is going to be "a war year."Is 2002 going to look like 1944? Or will it look like a pinched version ofthe 1990s? The answer will lie in how our leaders decide the remainder of our new war will be carried out and in how our potential enemies respond.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).