Armies of Liberty

I began this piece at midday on Friday, June 6,  a date that few Americans – few Britons, Canadians, Frenchmen – will permit to pass without a moment of reverence.  

Divided as we are at present, we Americans can still achieve a surprising consensus about this date.

The judgment of History comes slowly – often after centuries of consideration and re-consideration – but the verdict on D-Day seems settled.    

June 6, 1944, marked one of humanity’s finest hours.   An army of American, British, Canadian, and Free French troops – with elements of Poles, Belgians, Dutch, Czechs, Greeks and others – ran the extraordinary risk of forcing a landing on the well-defended coast of Hitler’s Fortress Europa.  

In doing so, they launched the campaign which would, within a year – aided by a massive Soviet assault on the Eastern Front – end Hitler’s dark empire.

For me, D-Day involves the ritual viewing of Saving Private Ryan on DVD.  Yes, I’d rather see it in a crowded theatre, but watching alone suffices.  At the end, my eyes will still moisten when a dying Captain Miller urges Ryan to “earn this.”  

That’s the film’s simple moral:  The perpetual challenge from the dead to those who enjoy the liberty they died to preserve.   “Earn this.”

The men who waged that long-ago battle are now few.  Even the youngest of those who gathered around radios, listening to dispatches from Normandy, are growing old.  But somehow, our nation still chooses to remember this day with special reverence.  

I suppose there’s hope for us yet.

As important as D-Day is, the past week also marked the twenty-fifth  anniversary of a very different sort of occasion.   In early June, 1989, the massive, peaceful, popular uprising which centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square was ruthlessly crushed by government troops and tanks.  

The assault began on June 4.  On the following day, an unknown man stood in front of a column of heavy Type 59 tanks, briefly forcing them to stop.  The gallant defiance of this one unknown man – “the tank man” – remains symbolic, both of the human desire for liberty, and of the fact that liberty remains a rare thing in human history.

The victories won in its name are never permanent.  We who enjoy its blessings can never take it for granted.

Perhaps the “tank man” also stands for this:  Single individuals, however brave,  cannot end tyranny.  Liberty is won and preserved by “bands of brothers” willing to die for one another and for the cause they serve.

The individual matters, but the individual is never enough.  Liberty demands teamwork.

Sadly, in contemporary America, the whole discourse on liberty has degenerated into an obsession with mere personal preferences.  We have become a society of narcissists – perpetual adolescents celebrating the individual’s “right” to do whatever he or she wants, while imposing the costs on others.

You see it everywhere.

There’s the demand for ever-greater government subsidies for higher education – even for young people who have yet to develop a passion for learning or the maturity to finish what they start.  

There’s the rejection, by gun fanciers, of sensible restrictions on the ownership of military-style weapons - despite an ever-rising toll of slaughter in our schools and on our streets.

There’s the universal cry for more highways, bigger vehicles, and cheap fuel – even at the cost of irreparable environmental damage, continued military involvement in the Middle East, and dangerous global warming.

And there are smaller things – from outspoken profanity at the next table in a family restaurant, to the driver running a red light because his timetable is important.

The precious gift of liberty has been reduced to a celebration of self.  The mantle of personal freedom cloaks actions better labeled obnoxious, self-centered, or rude.

But in truth, liberty is not, ultimately, about the individual.

Each soldier who hit the beach at Normandy had personal hopes and dreams, but he did not act as part of a rabble.  He was trained, disciplined, as prepared as a soldier could be.  He fought – he lived or died – as part of something greater than himself.

Had that not been true, why would he have been there?  If personal self-gratification is the ultimate definition of liberty, why would any sane person risk death – which ends all freedom?  

To be sure, liberty often manifests itself in the lives of individuals – but it only endures as the common possession of a people.  Liberty is won and preserved by a community – and, paradoxically, by the willingness of individuals to sacrifice for the good of the whole.

Hitler wasn’t defeated by a random collection of Minutemen.  Neither, for that matter, was George III.

Wars are won, and liberty preserved, by bands of brothers – and sisters – willing to sacrifice everything the individual cherishes in order to preserve a community of freedom.

The heroes of D-Day knew this.  We forget it at our peril.

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