November 7, 2022
What Sacrifices Would You Make For a Cause?
What Sacrifices Would You Make For a Cause?
What do you believe in? This question makes many people uncomfortable, so we change the subject. But sometimes we have no choice; are we in or out?
The Greatest Generation
Tom Brokaw’s famous book about the generation who fought in World War II rang true in my family.
My mother, Louise was sixteen, a junior at Jordan High in Long Beach, California, when World War II began in Europe in 1939. Two years later, December 7, 1941, her sister—my Aunt Erma, a young bride of 21—was hanging clothes in her back yard on a hilltop at her Honolulu home in enlisted family housing when she
witnessed the bombing of the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. Fortunately, her husband—my Uncle Jack—was on a cruiser at sea with the aircraft carriers, which happily were on maneuvers when the attack occurred. My aunt and the other military families were shipped home, while my Uncle Jack’s ship went with the carriers to rain holy hell on the Japanese fleet at Midway.
I interviewed my uncle about his experiences in battle. He worked in the engine room, from which there would be no escape if his ship was sunk. When I asked if he had been afraid of dying, he just shrugged his shoulders fatalistically: “I didn’t worry about it,” he replied. “It’s what we had to do. I figured that if my time was up, then that would be it.”
My mom lived with her sister in San Francisco while my uncle fought the Japanese. Riding the cable car to work, Aunt Erma held her breath each day as she scanned the newspaper for news of the great naval battles in the Pacific, only exhaling when my uncle’s ship was not on the list of the ones that had been sunk.
When he came home on leave, Uncle Jack introduced my mom to a shipmate, who gave her a ring. She soon had second thoughts, but before she could give the ring back, his ship went down, killing everyone aboard. She returned the ring to his mother. My uncle had been transferred from that ship only weeks earlier and would survive the war after participating in every major naval battle in the Pacific.
Somewhere along the way, my mom married my dad. They had to hurry because he had orders for Europe, where he was destined to serve as a platoon sergeant.
“I wanted to get pregnant before he left,” my mom said years later (TMI, Mom), “because I was sure he was not coming back.” But he did come home, and I was born a short time later.
I asked my mother whether she had wondered during the war what life would be like if the Axis powers had won. “Not once,” she replied. “We never believed we would lose the war. But we did think a lot of our boys were going to die, and many of them did.”
Mom died four years ago at age 95. Thinking back on our conversations, I wonder how Americans would react today in similar circumstances. Are we too accustomed to letting professional soldiers fight our wars, offering “Thank you for your service” if we ever encounter one? Or would we have the courage to do what was needed to defend our way of life?
The Lessons of Ukraine
In a thought-provoking article in The Atlantic, “Ukrainians Are Defending The Values Americans Claim To Hold” (Oct. 2022), journalist George Packer suggests that we can learn from the Ukrainian people. Before the Russian invasion of February 24, 2022, he reports, Ukrainians were not united in their views about Russian claims on their territory. The revolution of 2014, in which Ukrainians “rallied to overthrow their corrupt, Russian-backed president, . . . was far from universally popular. Not even Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea and the eight-year separatist insurgency in the Donbas region could fully overcome the historical divisions in Ukraine’s conflicting pulls toward democratic Europe and autocratic Russia.”
But “[f]rom the first hours of the Russian invasion” in February 2022, Ukrainians united behind the principle of “self-organization.” As one Ukrainian explained, “’I think self-organization comes from an idea of community which is very deep in our culture. In Ukrainian we call it hromada. The idea is that politics is about horizontal relations between people and not about vertical relations of power’.”
According to Packer, “the Russian invasion has elevated the idea of hromada from local communities to the whole country. By killing Ukrainians regardless of their region or language or politics, Russia is helping forge Ukraine into something it’s never been—a national community.”
Because of this new sense of community, the Ukrainian people are now united in their cause against the Russian invasion. “We don’t even think about” losing, said a Ukrainian. “We need victory. Not-victory is not even in the mind. We have no choice. . . We’re trying to do a really huge thing: to build a new country while we fight the war. When we win, it will be beautiful.”
The Ukrainians know what they believe in and are willing to die for it. The Dutch Resistance During WW II
Such thinking was familiar to Americans like my mother and father and my aunt and uncle during WW II. My wife’s mother, Hetty Kraus (1920-1994), would have understood it too. She was a student at Leiden University when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands on May 10, 1940. Not long afterward, she joined the Dutch resistance. I tell her story in my novel, The Lioness of Leiden, due to come out in April, 2023. Visit www.thelionessofleiden.com for more details.