August 28, 2022

When the “War to End All Wars” (World War I) broke out in 1914, my Sicilian father had already served in the Italian Army, had been honorably discharged, and had left his then-impoverished country to find a life in America.

He would lose his first wife to the Spanish Flu of 1918. He and his second wife (my mother) would learn to speak English and become U.S. citizens.

When World War II broke out in 1939, their first son was nearing draft age. Would he be as lucky as his father in “dodging the bullet”? And when their youngest son (me) reached manhood, would he, too, face military service?

The 1930s and ’40s were a time of big talk around Sunday dinner tables. Men talked about war and politics, while women chatted about things close to home. A week of school, piano practice (the piano had come from a booming economy before the Great Depression), helping mom carry groceries on Saturday, attendance at church, and at business meetings with the grownups, all made me listless by the end of the week, the time of family gatherings. What could contribute to such big talk, anyway? I watched the men’s faces run through a gamut of emotions, charged with their homemade wine and robust Sicilian constitutions. I was indifferent to Mussolini’s military adventures and other big talk. I was rather more interested in how the wine was made than in how a country was run.

I learned much in school about the world in “History and Civics.” But at a future date, I would wonder why we weren’t taught that a tidal wave of technology had unified the country with rail, wire, and air lanes, that Manhattan was sprouting skyscrapers, that movies had begun to talk only a few years before I started going to school – to mention a few things that had transformed America. I did not know that the amazing Empire State Building (then tallest building in the world) first opened its doors when I was born, smack in the middle of the Great Depression. I was unaware, as I moved from knickers to long pants, that my German pal Carl and his family had moved to a Germany seized by Adolf Hitler. I also did not know that China was being stormed by Japan, that Russia had been taken over in the wake of World War I by a cabal of communists in a bloody revolution.

Though as a child I was unaware of what was going on in the world, it was plain to me, without thinking about it, that a country that could produce a wonder like the World’s Fair of 1939 in my “hometown” of New York City – I enjoyed it immensely – or breathtaking movies like “Fantasia” and “Pinocchio” was a  country that had a lot going for it.

And the reassuring voice of President Roosevelt over the radio, from a leader who had said “there is nothing to fear but fear itself,” was the voice of one who would lift America out of the doldrums of the Depression.

And so, coming home from a Sunday walk, when I heard that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor, I was dumbstruck. How could a midget on the other side of the world commit such an atrocity against this country? President Roosevelt’s declaration of war on that Day of Infamy, December 7, 1941, sank ominously into my bones and suddenly it became difficult to eat or sleep.

Great numbers of American boys were soon shipped across two oceans to fight dictators who threatened to end freedom in the world. I was too young for the draft, but mom’s fear for my brother became reality when he got called by Uncle Sam. After the lachrymose parting, a banner with a blue star on a white background hung in our window facing the street. Blue stars appeared in windows throughout the neighborhood and when blue turned to gold, our hearts sank.

The Allied struggles in Europe, under Eisenhower, and against Japan under MacArthur, eclipsed other news. War reports typically included Hitler’s non-stop ranting and the solemn declarations of Winston Churchill.

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World War II, worst war in history, made it painfully clear that the “War to End All Wars” did not, could not, live up to its boast. It was, after all, a claim contrary to the scriptural forecast of endless “wars and rumors of wars” [Matthew 24:6].

Five years after my brother returned from the war (which ended in 1945), the Republic of Korea (South Korea) was invaded by communist North Korea in a move by Kim Il Sung to swallow up the whole of Korea. This triggered a war to save South Korea and thwart the spread of communist dictatorship in the Far East. I was old enough now to serve in the armed forces and, sure enough, was called to military service. While I was in Korea, a rumor floated that Indochina would be the next war zone against communist expansion.

The Korean War did not conclude with a peace treaty and so officially it is “still on.” Almost 70 years after the truce of 1953, our forces are still in Korea, along the DMZ, facing the North Korean enemies we fought. By the time of my official discharge in 1961, war was ready to break out in Vietnam. It would not be the last war zone involving American troops.

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Nothing can beat the three-word description of war – war is hell – but after my return from Korea I wrote the following in a memoir:

“War is a gruesome human drama enacted with fire, steel, nerve and blood when rules of justice get broken. Though it has been waged for the wrong reasons, even among the righteous, there is no cause ever for the Jane Fondas of the world to badmouth their own country during war, endangering the men who put their lives on the line for their country. It is safe to say that the vast majority of veterans of all wars are not for war but against tyranny and leave the answers to the Big Questions to the Creator. Let us respect and honor our men and women in the armed forces – past, present, and future – for protecting our country from harm and safeguarding our way of life.”

The oath we took on the day of our induction underlines the gravity of a soldier’s role in the defense of his country and its way of life. It begins with “I, (name), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” and ends with “So help me God.”

The oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, is also taken by members of our government. As in the military, this marks all who violate their oath as delinquent and subject to punishment up to and including dismissal from service. Judging from the deeds, not the rhetoric, of some of our government officials – some even attack the Constitution! – it is evident that we have delinquents in government who act like traitors and who clearly don’t give a rap for the Constitution and for the enormous toll in lives lost and sacrifices made for the freedoms they enjoy.

Have they forgotten (have we all forgotten?) that all of us are, in more than a biologic sense, the future of those who came before us? Is it too much to ask that the men and women elected and appointed to serve in government – indeed all of us – consider, from time to time, if the sacrifices made and the blood shed for us were not in vain?

And is it asking too much of people of good will and good sense to unite, regardless of their differences, against the forces that would enslave us all? It is no time to raise white flags of surrender in the biggest world war we are now in. What we have going for us on our side are the power of humanity and truth, neither of which can be canceled by “progress.” And we shall prevail, so help us God.