On the eve of D-Day, long in the planning as the biggest amphibious invasion in history, General Dwight D. Eisenhower sent a message to the troops. It began:
“Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force: You are about to embark on the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.”
It is our great blessing, as liberty-loving people, that this Great Crusade succeeded. June 6,1944 marked the beginning of the end for the German war machine and Nazi tyranny, all vanquished by the Allies working in concert and united in high purpose.
While the men who did the fighting may not have termed their purpose as so high-flown — their expressed purpose was to get through the war and get back to their loved ones — they nevertheless risked all, they literally laid their lives on the line, and by the end of the war, 407,316 American men in uniform had made the ultimate sacrifice.
In the postwar years, the Allies secured their hard-won victory with alliances (defense and trade) and an international system dedicated to keeping the peace through mutual cooperation. Here at home, Eisenhower, the war hero, was elected President; the commander-in-chief in the field became Commander-in-Chief of the nation. For a quarter of a century not only a generation boomed, so did the country.
But now, three-quarters of a century after the Holy Grail — liberty — was secured, where are we?
The simplest response to that question is: We are lost, America of late has lost its way. We have been flailing, wildly and fearfully, since 9/11. Poll after poll shows big majorities of Americans feeling the country is “off track.” What a falling-off there has been from the once-upon-a-time high purpose. Somehow, in the years following D-Day, our highest point, the hero gave way to the antihero, wars of no particular purpose — certainly none of high purpose — ensued, the culture degraded….
How came we to be so lost? My conjecture: We have abused our liberty, we have not handled properly the great inheritance handed down to us by the victors of World War II. Yes, the “Greatest Generation” had their shortcomings, but, when put to the supreme test, they came together and did right. In our post-9/11 delirium, we have neither come together nor done right. Doing right, exercising our liberty appropriately, requires using one’s moral compass. But we set that compass aside decades ago: Liberals did not think a compass was needed, conservatives deployed it hypocritically.
Of late, however, there are encouraging signs of Renaissance, of America trying to get right again.
Out of moral revulsion at the amoral occupant now in the White House, record numbers of citizens are voting and are running for office; last November’s midterm elections were a resounding rebalancing. And consider the huge field of Democratic candidates vying to oust this amoral president: It takes a scorecard to track this embarrassment of riches. And what else are the powerful social forces of #MeToo, #March for Our Lives, and #Black Lives Matter but the populace trying mightily to get right regarding, respectively, sexual assault, gun violence, and racial injustice — all abuses of liberty?
As we are discovering, we do need our moral compass. Liberty without a compass leads to abuse.
At this hinge moment, for guidance we might look to another Commander-in-Chief — Abraham Lincoln — and his Gettysburg Address, specifically where he spoke of rededication to the cause. Most every American schoolchild studies this speech.
Looking back to the American Revolution (“Fourscore and seven years ago”) — just as today we look back at D-Day (threescore and fifteen) — Lincoln began by honoring “our fathers” who “brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty.” Turning to his own time (1863), he continued: “We are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and dedicated, can long endure.” Then came Lincoln’s words that speak to us now, exhorting our rededication to the “unfinished work”: “It is….for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to the cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”
It is for us, the living, honoring the cause of those who perished on D-Day and the greater war, to rededicate ourselves with “increased devotion” to our “unfinished work”: tutoring ourselves in the proper handling of our precious liberty.