Cathy and I visited the National World War II Museum in New Orleans last week. After seeing the Churchill War Rooms in London my expectations were low, but we were there for almost four very fascinating hours. The facts and artifacts were mostly not new to me but the presentation of the events and the stories that went with them was superb.
My first impression was the level of sacrifice involved. Any war requires sacrifices by the combatants and by those caught in the crossfire. But this war required significant sacrifices at home. So much was rationed – a normal gas ration was three gallons a week. A newspaper reported President Roosevelt asked Americans to eat less so more food could be sent to civilians in Europe. This is nothing like any of the wars in my lifetime, where the government has continually said there was no need for civilian sacrifice.
There is a huge political and moral difference in the costs of war being borne by a few and being borne by all.
The second impression was the dehumanizing effects of war. I only took one picture in the main exhibits of the museum – it was a plaque bearing this quote:
I am living on borrowed time…. If I don’t come back, try not to take it too hard. I wish I could persuade you to regard death as casually as we do over here. In the heat of battle you expect casualties, you expect somebody to be killed, and you are not surprised when a friend is machine-gunned in the face. You have to keep going. It’s not like civilian life, where sudden death is so unexpected. – Pvt. Ken Webster, U.S. 101st Airborne Division, letter to his mother
But my largest impression was the resiliency and capability of the human spirit. People were subjected to unbelievable conditions and tortures in concentration camps and prisoner of war camps – many survived. Soldiers were given near-impossible missions – they succeeded. Nations were overrun by invading armies – they resisted. And a developing nation with an isolationist attitude and only the 17th largest army turned itself into the greatest power in the history of the world in just a few years.
I have heard “warrior” defined as someone who does what must be done, no matter what. I think that’s a good definition.
What kind of world would we have if that level of commitment could be marshaled in the cause of peace, justice and compassion?
Why are so many unwilling to unleash their full capability unless there is a literal gun pointed at them?
I know our survival instinct is strong. I know there are countless issues and causes that some would elevate to the importance of a world war. I know you can only run so fast for so long before you collapse.
But it doesn’t seem right that so many of our greatest accomplishments – both individually and collectively – have occurred while killing each other.