We know Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler have a lot in common. Modern-age genocidal tyrants are usually pretty similar. But one thing strikes me – both initially thought American soldiers were little more than weekend warriors.
Sitting here thinking about a war with Iraq, I keep returning to an image of my father. September 1939, and Britain declares war on Germany. As soon as they hear the news on the radio, my dad and his twin brother enlist.
An ordinary New Zealander who had spent most of his time as a salesman and sportsman went off to war. He fought in a number of battles, including two of the major events of the war, El Alamein in North Africa and Monte Casino in Italy. My dad rose from an ordinary infantryman to a captain in the artillery in charge of a battery of New Zealand anti-tank guns. When I was a kid, Dad’s war stories didn’t impress me much. I heard them too many times. Now I wish I could hear them all again.
I remember stories from my uncle Jack, the oldest of the uncles. He had enlisted and shipped out from New Zealand to fight in Europe in World War I. He was in charge of mules in Cairo, Egypt, and about to board a ship for Turkey when they discovered he was too young to be there. I think he was 15. Had he sailed, he would have been at Gallipolli, a scene of devastating losses for New Zealand and Australian troops.
When I was very small, my grandfather, an Irishman, used to tell me tales of his adventures in the Boer War in South Africa in 1899. They’ve faded now, but I remember one especially. He and his fellow soldiers had been moving up a hill with a pack train of mules when they were attacked. He tried to keep moving while sheltering beside a mule, but the bullets began hitting the animal and coming through its neck. It fell, and he lay in the mud beside the dead mule as bullets meant for him thumped into it.
Ordinary guys inspired to do extraordinary things.
I had favorites among Dad’s treasure chest of war stories. In one, set in North Africa, Dad and his men were at a large staging area repairing some battered guns. British Gen. Bernard Montgomery rolled by, standing in his vehicle so his men could see him, as he liked to do. British soldiers snapped rigidly to attention and saluted. Later in the day an American general passed through, and – to the delight of the New Zealanders – the American GIs simply looked up from whatever they were doing and waved. The general waved back.
It is easy to misread America’s military culture as a weakness of will. Hitler, and even the German leaders in World War I awaiting the attacks of Black Jack Pershing and his American troops in 1917, did not think Americans would fight very hard. They were dead wrong.
If any of you have read histories of the world wars, or Korea or Vietnam, you’ll recall stories about drivers hauling supplies and armaments under fire and triumphing against incredible odds. There are National Guardsmen out there today, called up to drive trucks against Hussein. And you’re out there on America’s highways almost every day, in charge of a tractor and trailer that could create a major weapon for terrorists. Perhaps there are Al-Qaeda members at work in America today who do not realize how tough an enemy you are.
Ordinary people, such as America’s truck drivers in the military or on our interstates, once they are put in harm’s way, will fight to defend the battle front or the home front not just because they are trained to or told to, but because they believe completely that democracy is worth defending with all you’ve got. It was beyond Hitler’s grasp, and apparently Saddam’s, that this is a driving force far more powerful than fear.