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.
Everyone loves freedom. Fireworks and all. At Independence Day.
But Independence is a fragile good. Once obtained, many Peoples realize that Independence turns out different from what they asked for. Strongmen leaders grow into tyrants and apply harsh suppression. The national economy is mismanaged and drained into poverty because of greed, corruption and tribalism. Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité evolves into socialist Dépendence.
The American Independence succeeded well and grew into an exceptional configuration of fifty states and the strongest world economy. In his “Democracy in America” (issued from 1835 to 1840 in two volumes), Alexis de Tocqueville marvels about the American Democracy sprouted from the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, and an example for the French Revolution (1789).
But he also says that if its Congress discovers how to bribe the populace with public money, the American Republic will cease to exist. That danger is more than obvious today with “Obamacare” and other state-enforced laws that received only partisan approval.
Alexis de Tocqueville
Liberty from Independence is replaced by the tyranny of the majority, elected by an uninformed gullible electorate. Look at today’s American and European scenes: freedom has transmogrified into socialist servitude: dependence, not Independence. Or is replaced by the tyranny of the local bully (Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Mobutu, Idi Amin, Allende, Castro, Chavez, Sadam, Assad, just to name a few). The French Revolution turned into another tyranny by Napoleon. Remember the “guillotine”.
The Arab Spring of Hope got squashed by religious and secular tyrants (not that much different from what happened after the French Revolution.)
Still, thousands from other countries that once jumped in the streets celebrating their Independence from colonial powers risk their lives and indebt themselves to flee to Europe and the great USA. It is still better there than in their own “independent” crime-ridden, tortured and economically ruined homesteads.
Because freedom is a precious good, Peoples who lack it try to steal it. Or destroy it. Not only outside forces attack a free society, inside forces do so, too: liberal/socialist forces vie for more “government”, to impose their will and regulate freedom to smithereens, as is happening in the USA. Freedom-people seem unaware or complacent that they have a precious good, except at moments when they sing The Star-Spangled Banner, America The Beautiful, la Marseillaise, God Save The Queen, or other national anthems. At the Olympics or the World Cup Soccer, fans stand and shout it out. But the day after the fireworks fade, they return to their usual infighting, busy destroying their hard-won unity, or fall back into complacency, watching sports on TV.
What is left of the Arab Spring? The Independence hopes of the young people, seeing a possibility for democratic rule, a blossoming economy and full employment, living in a world deprived of arbitrary law, torture and daily fear?
Do we in the “West” have any responsibility to defend our liberty and to help others who are suppressed to gain or regain their freedom? I believe we do, and if we don’t, it will be at our own peril.
Can we help in the Middle East that has struggled for centuries to form political unity but never succeeded? Surely our “colonial”forefathers who drew arbitrary boundaries, overstepping tribal and religious realities, bear much responsibility for today’s political mess. As a result, many out there want to steal our liberty and to replace it with their own interpretation of how we should live, just as a matter of revenge.
We in the West should remain willing to offer a helping hand to liberty loving Peoples, but at the same time stand very strong to defend our own and make it known we will hit back very hard if they try to take it away from us. At present, the wishy-washy attitude from some Western countries invites attack. A weak posture, even the perception of one, can lead to very quick disaster (9/11 and subsequent events, both in Europe and in the USA, are obvious and dangerous examples).
A politician recently said that being strong does not mean having to go to war. Perhaps. But displaying a wimpy attitude and falling overboard in political correctness only invites a murderous mind to blow us up. You don’t believe that? Remember how World War II started with weak Neville Chamberlain, the amazing lack of intelligence of 9/11 due to political correctness, etc.. Nobody believed these events would be possible. But they happened, and will happen again if we do not show our teeth and preparedness to hit back. Tiny Israel does, and they are feared. Not so anymore with Obama’s BIG USA. Don’t misjudge or undervalue your Independence. Defend it. It can be lost before you know it.
It’s unfortunate but that’s how our world is made up. People enjoying freedom don’t like to be nasty to others. They become complacent, lazy, too comfortable in their own skin. But others who don’t enjoy it are willing to be nasty with you. That’s the human world we share. Nature has the same contrasts: a beautiful day or scenery gets destroyed by a hurricane, a tsunami, or a deadly flood. We cannot change it but we can protect ourselves.
Guard your Independence beyond the fireworks.