Today is V-E Day. Victory in Europe 75 years ago, May 8, 1945.
No doubt, like many of you sheltering in place, to pass the time I am making my way through televised series, some new, some old. Maybe I will finally see “The Wire” (highly recommended by our son Dan). And “Game of Thrones.” I just finished “Band of Brothers,” the 2001 HBO 10-part series relating the factual experiences of Easy Company, 506th Regiment of the 101 Airborne Division, U.S. Army, during World War II.
At the end of the fifth episode Easy Company was marching into Bastogne during the pivotal Battle of the Bulge at the end of December 1944. Confronting a last ditch effort by the Germans, Easy Company was under-equipped. The soldiers lacked sufficient ammunition and warm clothing.
From my previous extensive viewing of war movies I knew how the fight to control the strategic crossroads town ended. I knew how the Battle of the Bulge ended. I knew how the war ended.
Yet the story of the Band of Brothers soldiers of Easy Company, compiled in the acclaimed book of the same name by historian and author Stephen Ambrose through interviews with survivors as well as journals and letters from the soldiers, is gripping and emotional.
I’ve seen lots of war movies depicting practically every conflict joined by American servicemen on land, sea and air, from colonial times till the present. Even into the future, if we are to believe sci-fi imaginations.
Having avoided service during the Vietnam War, I have no first hand experience by which to gauge the special bonding of a platoon unit and the trauma of combat. Viewing choreographed battle scenes in France and Belgium, I feared for the safety, the lives, of individual soldiers on my TV screen. But my anxiety, palpable as it was, could not match the reality of what those young men, the real soldiers of Easy Company, actually underwent.
At the end of episode eight of “Band of Brothers,” as the surviving members of Easy Company are being transported away from the front lines for some well deserved rest and relaxation, a voice-over narrator contrasted their experience with an American home front emerging from shortages and restrictions. Life in the States was returning to normal.
Few civilians, the narrator said, could identify with “the price paid by soldiers in terror, agony and bloodshed” during the Battle of the Bulge and the siege of Bastogne.
I wonder now about the state of our nation’s backbone. For sure we are in the midst of an extraordinary trauma. More than 76,000 lives lost, with no reliably accurate forecast for how high the toll of death may rise.
Jobs have been lost at a level not seen since the Great Depression when few of our current fellow countrymen and women were alive.
Family wealth, if one can employ that word for the millions who live paycheck to paycheck, has been wiped out for many.
To help stem the spread of the new coronavirus we have been asked to shelter in place and social distance.
But, after less than two months, significant portions of society are rebelling against quarantine. I cannot imagine how they would have fared if they lived in occupied Europe during the war. If they had been Jewish and had to hide in cramped quarters for years to stay alive, with little food or freedom to walk outdoors or entertain oneself with no radio or other media.
I get it. People want to work. They want to eat in restaurants. Shop in stores. Go to the gym. Get their hair cut, their nails trimmed. They don’t want to wear masks. They want to hug their friends, their extended family.
Do they not realize they are placing personal desires over the welfare of the community? My immediate reaction was to think of them as extremely selfish and self-centered.
Then again, I am fortunate not to have to worry about a mortgage or retirement income. I don’t have young children to feed or school at home.
What to me are inconveniences of social distancing are traumatic life changes for those younger than my three score and eleven years.
And yet, I find deep resonance in what New York governor Andrew Cuomo says about the need to balance re-opening the economy against the value of a life. I am not ready, as some politicians have advanced, to jettison older, frailer people so that the next generation can go to the mall, movie theater or restaurant. In this argument, I am a right-to-lifer, which makes me wonder why I have not heard all religious leaders and anti-abortionists loudly proclaim allegiance to shelter at home and social distancing directives.
Even while we were fighting Nazi tyranny pacifists spoke out against war. They weren’t unpatriotic. They just had a different understanding of what support for our country’s principles meant.
We are engaged in an all-out war against COVID-19. It is a stealth enemy that has shown it can strike even inside a well-shielded (we would hope) White House. Nearly 77,000 have already died in America from the coronavirus. We are on a trajectory to soon match the number of servicemen the Department of Defense says were killed in action in Europe from D-Day through May 8—104,812.
Perhaps most troubling is that so many needn’t have died. A new study, led by Princeton Medical Center, asserts that if orders to stay-at-home and wear face masks when outside had been issued four days earlier the number of deaths could have been halved (https://mol.im/a/8301305).
In actual combat, no matter how hard commanders try to limit casualties, they know deaths will happen. COVID-19 is a killer. We couldn’t change that. But competent leadership based on science and accepted medical practice could have reduced the terror, agony and loss of life so many families have experienced these last few months.