There was a car in the handicapped space in front of my bank a few weeks ago. It was a real beater, a huge gas-guzzling muscle car from the 1960’s which had seen better days. The color was primer grey, the tires were bald, and a sleeping bag was open in the back seat. It was a typical vision of a makeshift home for a homeless person. The one thing that made it stand out was the license plate, which proudly proclaimed “WWII VETERAN”.
The only person inside the bank who was over 50 was a wizened black man who needed a cane to move. I asked him if that was his car I had passed on my way in. When he said that it was I introduced myself and, as is my custom, thanked him for his service.
This surprised him. He said that people didn’t make mention of those old days much anymore, and he wanted to know why I had taken the trouble to seek him out. I blurted out the first thing that popped into my mind.
“You were part of the team which saved the world!” I said.
We sat and talked for awhile. He told me of driving trucks in the Red Ball Express, taking supplies up to the front so our armies could smash Hitler’s last hope of victory. He packed sand bags on the floor in an almost certainly futile attempt to shield himself against a mine blast. The regs called for them to drive no faster than 35 MPH to keep accidents to a minimum, but no one drove that slow. He went like a bat out of hell, hoping that his speed would throw off the aim of any snipers. His rifle rode loaded and ready in the cab with him, leaning against the passenger door. Every time he took a corner it would tip over, the muzzle jabbing him in the ribs. Even so, it never even occurred to him to pack his weapon away so he could have a more comfortable ride.
There are people going through the very same thing right now. The weapons are M16’s instead of M1’s, the place is Iraq instead of France or Belgium. But sandbags are still packed on the truck floor to protect from explosions, rifles still poke the unwary in sensitive places. Snipers are a danger, so the drivers still go like bats out of hell.
And, of course, the stakes are still the same. It is a struggle for the future of this planet.
More than a few pundits liken 9/11 to the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. What with my talk of WWII veterans in the first part of this little essay, you can be forgiven if you thought I was going to go down that same path. Instead, it seems to me that the First World War has more to teach us about the current struggle.
The world was a certain way before the War to End All Wars, and it was changed forever just as soon as that conflict started. British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey defined it perfectly when he said “The lights are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” And he was right.
9/11 was like that if you change the metaphor around a little bit.
One minute the world was working in an orderly and sane fashion, and then it all changed. We were thrust into a struggle between civilizations, all without desiring or seeking the conflict. Terrorism was brought to our doorstep, and thousands of innocent people who were just trying to go about their lives were slaughtered.
This had the opposite effect of lamps going out. Instead it was like snapping the kitchen light on and surprising the roaches that had crept out to dine on the crumbs. All of a sudden it became so very clear. There were bad people in the world, they were going to do anything to kill as many of us as possible, and there was no way they were ever going to stop unless someone stood up and made them stop. This struggle will probably not end in our lifetimes, but no matter what happens the old complacency most certainly will never be restored. Sir Edward Grey would have understood.
Five years after it all started and the Global War on Terrorism is still going strong, just like it will for the next five years. At least, I hope it will be going strong half a decade hence. There certainly isn’t anyone who will step up to take our place if we slack off.
It is rare that I ask people to donate to a charity, but you might think of helping these guys out. I’m sure that the team that is currently saving the world would appreciate it.