Yesterday commemorated the 60th anniversary of a vital battle. This important battle, arguably as important as or even more important than Saratoga or Gettysburg, has no place in popular memory. No parades or flags or solemn ceremonies commemorate this important battle. I doubt a single public high school class studies it. Probably only a handful of public school teachers, many of whom were born in the 1970s or later, could even name the battle, even if you gave them hints:
- This was the largest land battle of World War II;
- Churchill called it "the greatest American battle" of the War; and
- It was fought for a brutal month and more, during the most frozen winter in living memory, in the Ardennes, on the border between Belgium and Germany, from December 16th, 1944, through January 25th, 1945.
Most of us who belong to the Most Ungrateful Generation, Baby Boomers like me, won't recognize this description of the Battle of the Bulge. The phrase may be familiar as a movie title, or as a punch line about weight loss (for we are sybaritic as well as ungrateful).
But only rarely do we remember it as we should, as an all-too-real battle that marked a turning point in the War. The Battle of the Bulge marked the point at which it became clear that freedom would win over tyranny, the beginning of the very end for the Nazis, who finally surrendered five months later, on May 7, 1945.
When it comes to ignorance of World War II, I'm as guilty as the rest of my generation, or nearly so, my knowledge of World War II confined to the experience of those close to me, especially my father. I know only about those battles in which he took part, only about the countries in which he served, about only a few of the people who he met, whose lives he touched and whose lives touched him.
So I know a little about the Battle of the Bulge because my father took part in it, and because I loved and admired him. A gentle man, an artist and scholar by nature and a blue-collar laborer by fate, my father was a patriot who always stood when he heard the National Anthem. I can still see him now, unaware I'd lingered at the door, silently remarking him standing straight and so tall, alone in our living room, standing at attention while the National Anthem played, until the last note died away in the still heat of our 4th-floor walkup.
My father always stood up and stood tall, never for an audience, always conscious of moral principle. He was one of those now rare men who always strive to do what is right and honorable, irrespective on any audience, often in spite of his audience. It's hard to convince today's media-cynicized youth that there were such men, that most families in America and in Britain wanted and expected their sons to know what was the right thing to do, and to do it--and, should they fail to do what is right, to feel guilty about and ashamed of that failure.
(Three cheers for shame and guilt, I say, those often-belittled guides on the road to morality. How can you feel proud of your good acts, if you're not capable of feeling heartily ashamed of the bad?)
My father was a member of what Boomers now call the Greatest Generation, an appellation he would have found embarrassing, and would have considered just plain wrong.
For him, and for me, the Greatest Generation isn't made up of the heroes of the Battle of the Bulge, nor even our friend who survived, barely, the Bataan Death March, nor even my beloved Uncle Ben Andruszkewicz, who lost a lung and lifelong dreams of a Navy career when he was blown down a hatch on the Arizona, along with the fellow sailors who'd nicknamed him "Ben A-to-Z," nor the hundreds of thousands of the other great, good men who saved civilization from the insatiable appetites of the tyrants and fanatics of Germany and Japan.
The men of the "Greatest Generation" were great men, indeed.
But the truly Greatest Generation is the one mocked or, at best, forgotten, these days. The generation most deserving the adjective "Greatest" is not that of the heroes of the Battle of the Bulge, but their parents, the much-maligned late Victorians and Edwardians who instilled in their sons the character that enabled them to fight the Battle of the Bulge with courage, tenacity, and honor; to treat their former enemies, when that war finally ended, with compassion and wise generosity, transforming former foes into financial powers and allies who share our interest in peace; and to be modest about their heroism during the war and about their generosity afterward.
These parents instilled honor in their sons and courage in their daughters, and the belief in all their children that preserving Western Civilization from whatever enemy threatened it was worth any sacrifice. And they believed that faith, Christian faith, was the cornerstone of individual liberty, of individual rights, and the foundation of a culture worth dying to preserve. For the Victorians and Edwardians, Christianity was a faith worth living by; and though "Onward Christian Soldiers" was a song of the Sally Ann not customarily sung by the upper crust, the belief in the value of a strong, masculine Christianity crossed all classes, and reinforced virtues like charity, honor, and self-sacrifice.
So those of us who are wont to pray, let us pray tonight to honor the men of World War II, men like my father, Harry Powers.
And let us also give thanks for the parents who reared these heroes.
And let us pray that we and our children and our children's children have the courage to emulate those parents who gave the world such remarkable men.