Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s 1998 World War II epic, opens with a scene of an American flag snapping in the wind.
Except that the vivid red, white and blue we’ve come to expect in Old Glory have been washed out, leaving only black-and-white stripes.
And then the movie opens–not during World War II but the present day.
It makes you wonder: Did Spielberg know something–such as that the United States, for all its military power, has become a pale shadow of its former glory?
Consider the following:
May, 30, 1945, marked the first Memorial Day after World War II ended in Europe.
On that day, the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery became the site of just such a ceremony. The cemetery lies near the modern Italian town of Nettuno.
In 1945, it held about 20,000 graves. Most were soldiers who died in Sicily, at Salerno, or at Anzio.
One of the speakers at the ceremony was Lieutenant General Lucian K. Truscott, Jr., the U.S. Fifth Army Commander.
Lieutenant General Lucian K. Truscott, Jr.
Unlike many other generals, Truscott had shared in the dangers of combat, often pouring over maps on the hood of his jeep with company commanders as bullets or shells zipped close by.
When it came his turn to speak, Truscott moved to the podium–and then did something truly unexpected.
Looking at the assembled visitors–which included a number of Congressmen–Truscott turned his back on the living to face the graves of his fellow soldiers.
Among Truscott’s audience was Bill Mauldin, the famous cartoonist for the Army newspaper, Stars and Stripes. Mauldin had created Willie and Joe, the unshaved, slovenly-looking “dogfaces” who came to symbolize the GI.
Bill Mauldin and “Willie and Joe,” the characters he made famous
It is from Mauldin that we have the fullest account of Truscott’s speech that day.
“He apologized to the dead men for their presence there. He said that everybody tells leaders that it is not their fault that men get killed in war, but that every leader knows in his heart that this is not altogether true.
“He said he hoped anybody here through any mistake of his would forgive him, but he realized that was asking a hell of a lot under the circumstances….
“Truscott said he would not speak of the ‘glorious’ dead because he didn’t see much glory in getting killed in your late teens or early twenties.
“He promised that if in the future he ran into anybody, especially old men, who thought death in battle was glorious, he would straighten them out. He said he thought it was the least he could do.
“It was the most moving gesture I ever saw,” said Mauldin.
Then Truscott walked away, without acknowledging his audience.
Fast forward 61 years–to March 24, 2004.
At a White House Correspondents dinner in Washington, D.C., President George W. Bush joked publicly about the absence of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in Iraq.
One year earlier, he had invaded Iraq on the premise that its dictator, Saddam Hussein, possessed WMDs he intended to use against the United States.
To Bush, the non-existent WMDs were nothing more than the butt of a joke that night.
While an overhead projector displayed photos of a puzzled-looking Bush searching around the Oval Office, Bush recited a comedy routine.
“Those weapons of mass destruction have gotta be somewhere,” Bush laughed, while a photo showed him poking around the corners in the Oval Office.
“Nope-–no weapons over there! Maybe they’re under here,” he said, as a photo showed him looking under a desk.
In a scene that could have occurred under the Roman emperor Nero, an assembly of wealthy, pampered men and women–-the elite of America’s media and political classes–-laughed heartily during Bush’s performance.
Only later did the criticism come, from Democrats and Iraqi war veterans–especially those veterans who had lost comrades or suffered grievous wounds to protect America from non-existent WMDs.
Then fast forward another 11 years–to February 27, 2015.
The Republican Party’s leading presidential contenders for 2016 gathered at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.
Although each candidate tried to stake his own claim to the Oval Office, all of them agreed on two points:
First, President Barack Obama had been dangerously timid in his conduct of foreign policy.
Second, they would pursue aggressive military action in the Middle East.
“Our position needs to be to re-engage with a strong military and a strong presence,” said Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida.
And Bush added that he would consider sending ground forces to fight ISIS.
Scott Walker, the current governor of Florida, equated opposing labor unions to terrorists, and said: “If I could take on 100,000 protesters (in Wisconsin), I can do the same across the world.”
Neither Bush nor Walker saw fit to enter the ranks of the military he wishes to plunge into further combat.
And Bush and Walker are typical of those who make up the United States Congress:
Of those members elected or re-elected to the House and Senate in November, 2014, 97–less than 18%–have served in the U.S. military.
Small wonder that, for many people, Old Glory has taken on a darker, washed-out appearance.