Two Thirds Of A Century

I remember when I was a kid, and my mother saying, “I can’t believe it’s been thirty years since D-Day.” She had been a WAC, stationed in Egypt at the time. My father (whom she had not yet met) was shooting at Messerschmitts and other German fighters from the waist of a B-25 over Italy, Romania and other eastern European countries. The success of the invasion was the beginning of the end of the war in Europe and, despite the last gasp at the Battle of the Bulge the following winter, essentially sealed Germany’s fate.

Well, she’s gone now (for over twenty years), as is my dad (over thirty) and so are most of the participants in that event. The youngest of them are in their mid-eighties, and slowly, the greatest, most destructive war in history is passing from living memory. How many veterans of Gettysburg were still alive in 1930? That battle, combined with the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi to Grant the day after that famous union victory, similarly sealed the fate of the Confederacy. It is said that after Reconstruction, Vicksburg refused to fly an American flag for decades, until the thirties. If so, it’s probably because, by then, few were around to remember that ignominious and infamous day in the city’s history.

The passing of that generation would be less poignant, and unsettling, if we were preserving their memories, and properly teaching our children history. But given the disastrous state of both public education and academia, we cannot rely on the next generation knowing anything about that longest day:

I playfully launched in to a mock exam, using the small images of each of the war’s principals from the front cover. “Okay, who’s this?” I demanded, pointing to the visage of Winston Churchill.

From my friend, silence. And a blank stare. ”Uh, alright,” I hesitated unevenly, “how about him?” I pointed to Stalin.

“Oh, Franklin Roosevelt, I think,” offered my friend earnestly.

Mental panic was setting in. “And this?” I pointed to Hirohito.

“ . . . Gandhi?”

Our impromptu exam ended with howls of laughter from my chair, and a red face in the other.

You don’t need to be a history fanatic to recognize most of those men. And if you’re, say, an elementary-ed student expected to teach the subject, it’s helpful to know the subject, right? And preferably before you pick up a book on it . . . “for kids.”

But here’s the thing: my friend is smart. An “A” student, attending a respected university.

For all the talk about lesson planning, creative learning, compassionate engagement, etc., from the education reform crowd, how often is it asked: Do our teachers know their subjects?

Sadly, the answer in many cases is “no.” Worse yet, the texts are too focused on the contributions of lesbians and African-Americans and Siberian-Americans and on how awful and wart-filled is our history (we enslaved people, but didn’t lose six-hundred thousand white men to free them) to pay attention to things like the ideas of those evil slave-holding Founders, or the people who stormed a beach sixty-seven years ago to liberate a continent from totalitarianism. And the price we’ll pay for it in the future may well be the need for another D-Day, particularly when we have a president who seems to be unfamiliar with that history, or that of the Middle East.

[Update a while later]

Here is Ernie Pyle’s dispatch, published almost a week after the fact.

[Update early afternoon]

More D-Day memories. There are as many amazing stories from that war as there were participants. I’m actually a little surprised that there are as many as 1.7M vets left.

16 thoughts on “Two Thirds Of A Century”

  1. Sadly, my wife thinks I’m some kind of history savant, because I found the subject interesting enough to pay attention in class and then read more on my own. Believe it or not, I think a mural of California history in the Sears store we went to when I was a kid, had some effect…

    I couldn’t imagine trying to make sense out of the present without knowing what led up to it. People who don’t know history — even just the much-maligned “dates and events” kind — are culturally retarded as a result.

  2. IMO, students no longer studying the war in school and the new gender gap between boys and girls in college entrance exams are strongly linked.

  3. I couldn’t imagine trying to make sense out of the present without knowing what led up to it. People who don’t know history — even just the much-maligned “dates and events” kind — are culturally retarded as a result.

    If you don’t understand the past, you have no hope of understanding the present. If you don’t understand the present, you’ll have no clue as to what the future can hold.

  4. I’m not surprised that there are still that many WWII vets around. I was surprised to learn that the last WWI vet is still alive. The last American WW1 veteran died just a little over three months ago.

    Life expectancies are increasing all over the world – some Iraq/Afghanistan vets will probably still be alive in 2100.

  5. Some 16 million (mostly) men served in the US military during WWII. According to a recent article I read, about 1.3 million are still alive but an average of 1000 a day are dying. The youngest legal* veterans turned 17 in 1945, so they’d be 83 this year. The life expectancy for someone in their 80s isn’t all that great but some small percentage of them will likely live to at least 100. By 2030-2040, all of them will be gone.

    *Some teenagers lied about their ages and enlisted before the legal limit of 17 (with parent’s permission). This morning, I listened to a D-Day vet who was 16 when he parachuted into Normandy.

  6. Actually, the life expectancy of an 80 yo male is around 7 years. Which is pretty darn phenomenal when you consider that they are, well.. 80.

    I am fortunate enough to have two grandfathers that are still with us. The older turned 90 this year and served stateside. The younger is 88 and served in the Navy in the Mediterranean and later was a part of an escort convoy in the Pacific(I believe escorting the Missouri when it accepted the Japanese surrender). They are both good men and I will miss them both when they are gone.

  7. Imagine 2000 years from now the only references to D-Day would be a badly mangled copy of the movie The Longest Day and a few minutes of “Saving Private Ryan”. Imagine people in the future trying to determine what happened on June 6th 1944. Imagine them trying to determine what the cause of the war was, who was in it, and whether or not it was really a war or just a legend.

    These were the questions I asked myself as I recently read “The Iliad”.

  8. The invasion at Normandy is important because it is a seminal event in modern times. It is our Agincourt, our Bull Run and others that we have forgotten. Its impact is felt to this day and the surprising thing is that it will not be forgotten. The soldiers may pass away and the forests will hide the pain but its effects are felt to this day.

  9. God Bless them all. To those who gave the last full measure of devotion, and to those who returned home to lead extraordinarily ordinary lives. You are my heroes, to the last and least of you.

  10. Forget about the queer studies and the post-structuro-multi-feminists. The fundamental problem with modern academics is the pernicious notion that students don’t have to know anything in particular.

    I co-taught an “interdisciplinary studies” course with an English professor a few years back (when I was a mechanical engineering professor). I recall vividly one day, as we were preparing the syllabus, his comment that engineers seemed peculiarly focused on “content” while in the School of Arts the primary goal was to teach students “how to learn”. To which I could only reply, “well, YEAH”. You don’t get to imagine how fluids behave — you are required to learn how to apply conservation of mass and momentum and energy to get the right answer. Among non-engineer, non-science grads we see this all the time: students who graduate with a degree in English or Psychology who don’t know anything in particular, who are equipped with the vaguest paradigms about critical theory and “meta” thinking. Higher education bubble, indeed.

  11. A historian for over thirty years, since my youth, I traveled to New Orleans after the then-new D-Day Museum opened. The night before visiting, I dined in an establishment on Bourbon St., one staffed mostly by college students. I conducted an impromptu quiz by asking about a dozen or so of them some basic questions about D-Day, WWII, and the invasion of Europe. These weren’t brain teasers, but fairly simple questions for anyone who knew the bare minimum about that time, i.e., what European nation was invaded on D-Day? What future U.S. president led the effort? Who were the political leaders of the principle nations involved? What year did D-Day occur, and what was it? Not one of these kids knew a damned thing. Talk about depressing. Eons ago, when I was a boy, that’s what you read about in library books, the heroes of WWI and WWII. It was unthinkable that one could pass through the public education system, or for that matter, the life of a typical family (whose parents were alive during the war) without knowing something about it. A nation that forgets its own history cannot survive and prosper into the future, which is apparently just fine with all of those Marxists teaching our children in K-12 and college. This is a national disgrace. Good men died to liberate a continent, and our young people don’t know about it?

  12. “Among non-engineer, non-science grads we see this all the time: students who graduate with a degree in English or Psychology who don’t know anything in particular”

    I would propse, that all college degrees require at least Calc 1, and the ability to do basic physics and electrical formulas. Even art degrees. Time to reform higher ed!

    As per WWII…I just wish the US had stayed out of that war, except for the response to the Japanese attack. We should have let Europe fester on it’s own. Perhaps, the greatest generation, was really just another dumb generation.

  13. My father put law school on hold, concealed a childhood injury and accepted a direct commission in the infantry after graduating from UVA. He saw me once before he deployed to the England to train for Normandy. He landed on Omaha Beach, was wounded in the hedgerow fighting, wounded again on day one of the Ardennes Offensive, and killed leading his platoon up to the Rhine eight weeks before Germany fell.

    At 13 months old, I was a war orphan and at 23 mom was a widow. Mother was in denial for weeks, partly because dad’s letters kept arriving. She would see someone walking down the street and stop him only to realize it was a stranger. On a trip to France, she stayed on the bus rather than tour Normandy. She turned 90 last month.


  14. That Ernie Pyle report was very interesting. I just saw THE STORY OF G.I. JOE on Memorial Day, with Burgess Meredith as Pyle.

    Unfortunately the real Pyle was killed in the Pacific two months before it premiered.

    I had two uncles who fought in the war, though not on D-Day. My father was too young but flew a fighter in Korea.

  15. Nice classy touch, using the occassion of the sacred D-Day to throw in a gratiutous slur on the South. Well done.

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