It did not dawn on me until I was at a Jesuit boarding school in Nijmegen, a city close to Germany and one of the centers of World War II fighting in The Netherlands. During the 1950s, a (strictly forbidden) girlfriend Marijke van Steen (probably happily married now with grandkids like me) took me on a bike ride to the Canadian War Cemetery at a small town called Groesbeek not far from where she lived. Having survived World War II as a child (from about 4 to 9 years old), I had intense and often graphic memories of those awful years of being occupied by Nazi Germany. I had seen aviators fighting in the sky, bombers dropping bombs, and German soldiers rounding up compatriots, including Jewish friends, and beating them up or shooting them in the street.
A downed British pilot once sought refuge in our house and disappeared again with the help of underground resistance fighters. I was 9 when we were finally liberated thanks to all those allied forces who fought their way through German armies, deadly fortresses of machine guns, powerful tanks, Junker fighter planes, Heinkel bombers and later the fierce Messerschmitts jetfighters.
While World War II memories remained lucent growing up, there is nothing more poignant to resuscitate those memories when you visit the warriors’ graves. Marijke showed me around.
Though she was a few years younger than I, she also remembered liberation in 1945. Yes, we were the lucky ones and could smile, like the people in the picture below.
Hand in hand we stood in front of all these white crosses while complete silence reigned around us in the Cemetery. Each white cross represented a scream in pain, a futile effort to fight death, a vain struggle to scramble to safety, grasping a twig before hurtling down a cliff or parachuting into a burning sea. Each white cross had comrades in battle, mortally wounded, or severely injured, alive perhaps but impaired for life.
Sitting together on a bench overlooking the extensive field of bright white crosses, we knew it was thanks to those brave youthful warriors we were still alive and could fall in love. When I was drafted into the army and crept through sand or waded through ponds with a rifle above my head, I remembered those who did this for real and made the ultimate sacrifice.
I am the guy with the broad smile in the middle, cleaning my rifle, all of us having great fun.
I was lucky as it did not happen to me, but for many American soldiers, it did, in Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, the wider world. Arlington Cemetery, and the World War II memorial with its European and Asian theaters, are thoughtful places to realize how thankful we must be to those who shield us from harm and keep us safe. It is nice to say ‘peace through strength’, but we must not forget that that ‘strength’ means a lot of brave people, fellow humans, who are willing to pay the ultimate price when they have to, for us to keep enjoying our comfortable lives.