Until the guns fall silent forever

On Saturday evening, three of the last four survivors of Jimmy Doolittle’s daring raid on Tokyo gathered at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Ohio, to offer one last toast to their fallen comrades.  All are in their nineties now; the fourth living raider could not attend due to health concerns.  Originally they planned for the farewell toast to be held by the final two survivors, but they thought it best not to take the chance that none of them would be able to lift a glass in salute when Veterans Day 2014 rolls around.

“We didn’t want to get a city all excited and plan and get everything set up for a reunion, and end up with no people because of our age,” as 98-year-old Lt. Colonel Richard Cole explained, with the easygoing directness and humility of the Greatest Generation.

(Video courtesy of The Blaze.)

Anyone familiar with World War II knows the Doolittle raid was not a significant strategic blow against imperial Japan, but it was an enormous morale-booster at home, reminding Americans that were were still very much in the fight that began at Pearl Harbor.  The Japanese, on the other hand, were quite discombobulated by the sight of B-25 bombers over Tokyo.  It took a while before the incomparably courageous men who pulled off that raid realized just how much they had changed the course of history.

There are many lessons to be learned there.  War always boils down to questions of morale and willpower, both in the field and back at home.  The flag of victory is not planted over the body of the very last soldier in an army destroyed to the last man.  Ambition, courage, and initiative carry us through dark hours.  Many battles achieve their true significance only with hindsight.  How often does anyone feel the course of history changing in real time, as the ground shifts beneath their feet?  Every momentous account, both joyous and horrible, includes plenty of paragraphs which begin, “No one realized it at the time, but…”

Doolittle’s raiders took wing decades before I was born, but I know full well that my life would not exist without them, and so many others who stood tall against seemingly unbeatable tyranny.  No one’s life contains enough riches to repay a fraction of the heroes who made it possible, back through centuries to the first in a long line of American patriots who were told they didn’t stand a chance, and there would be no rescue from their acts of defiance.

The veterans our grandchildren will never be able to repay are serving tours right now, and training for the battles yet to come.  It is the duty of peaceful men and women to set aside their own dreams, and prepare to deal with the nightmares of cruel beasts who slumber in faraway dens.  The contest will rely heavily upon the skill and courage of soldiers, but ultimately it always comes down to the spirit of the whole nation.  Perhaps the next war will once again turn on moments when the spiritual grandchildren of Doolittle’s raiders seize hope from the crest of some dark mountain that no one was supposed to be capable of climbing, some bleak citadel no one should have been able to breach.

Some people nurse fears that our society could grow too militaristic (or too “jingoistic,” as they often put it.)  I have the opposite concern.  It’s not good for the rest of us to grow too far away from our soldiers, too distant from their achievements and sacrifices, too remote from the military virtues of discipline and initiative.  Civilian employers seek those virtues in returning veterans.  Others should be eager to learn from the troops, who have much to teach us about focus and dedication.  It will be more difficult for our young people to learn those lessons if they think of the military community as a world apart, a bizarre and inscrutable lifestyle choice made by a few of their friends.

Why should anyone who loves liberty withhold an ounce of their love from those who put their lives on the line to defend it?  Love calls for understanding and respect.  It’s easy to say “I support the troops,” but if you would love them, you must understand them.  Likewise, if you want to declare your love for peace, you must understand it, appreciating both its beauty and terrible fragility… and that means you must understand the warriors, who view peace from a vantage point no one else can ever occupy.

Our popular culture has not lately served us well, when it comes to understanding those who took arms after the fall of the Axis.  How much does our culture transmit to young people about those who served in Korea and Vietnam?  How often are they portrayed as anything but dupes, victims, or lunatics?  If you don’t think anything was achieved in Korea, I invite you to gaze upon a satellite view of the peninsula at night, and imagine the horrible black void in the North consuming the glittering stars of peace and progress in the South.

How much do our young people even know about the astonishing courage and gallant conduct of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan?  There are so many stories that should have already reached television and movie screens.  There is so much to learn about the troops who served there, so much hard-won wisdom they’ve brought back.  The American veteran should not belong to a strange subculture his civilian neighbors can scarcely imagine.  They are us.  They come from every town and city – every little regional airport has seen soldiers depart for war, and welcomed them home.

They carry our flag, and the ideals it embodies, to the far corners of the world.  Many people in foreign lands will never meet an American who isn’t wearing a military uniform.  Those in desperate need home there are plenty more at home like the American troops who ride to their rescue.  Those who would do us harm count on the opposite.

It would be beautiful if those encounters could always occur under peaceful circumstances, as the U.S. military quickly appears at the site of every natural disaster and catastrophe with rescue supplies.  But the day when all the guns fall silent forever is far off.  Doolittle’s raiders made their final toast with cognac bottled in 1896, the year he was born.  Somewhere in the world today, the vintage that will be raised in salute to the next century’s heroes will be sealed in glass.