ASCF Report | 6.2.14
By Alan W. Dowd
Gen. Marshall’s orders to Gen.
Eisenhower were at once simple and yet staggering: “Cross the channel, enter
the heartland of Germany and free
the continent of Europe.”
To do so, Ike hurled 160,000 men,
some 6,000 ships, 2,300 planes and 840 gliders at the beaches and cliffs of
Normandy. He fully grasped the massive nature of the D-Day undertaking—and the
risk. “Your task will not be an easy
one,” the general of generals said to his men. “Your enemy is well trained, well
equipped and battle hardened; he will fight savagely.”
beaches turned red with blood, FDR urged the American people to join him in prayer. Noting
that America’s sons were fighting “to preserve our Republic, our religion and
our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity,” he asked God to “lead
them straight and true.” He knew what they faced was terrible. “The darkness
will be rent by noise and flame,” the president explained. “Men’s souls will be
shaken with the violences of war.” Indeed, the U.S. invasion force lost 2,500
dead in the first 24 hours.
I knew two of Ike’s men, two who stormed the beaches, rode the seas and
screamed through the heavens on June 6, 1944, two who gave flesh and bone to
Churchill’s desperate dream after Dunkirk—that “in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and
might, will step forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.”
One was the son of a physician, a
city boy who grew up in the middle class of Middle
America. In keeping with his family’s Irish roots, he was a devout Catholic and
a lifelong Democrat. He attended the University of Notre Dame but had to leave
school and a promising golf career to take care of his family after his father died.
When war came, he enlisted in the Army Air Force. On D-Day, he was in a C-47,
towing gliders over Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.
He never cussed. In fact, if
someone said something off-color, he would leave the room. He had a childlike
innocence about him always. He used to quip that he didn’t find out the big
secret about Santa until he was deployed to England.
Like so many of his generation,
he was optimistic and patriotic, stoic and humble. There wasn’t a trace of
pride in him. In fact, when friends would ask what he did to earn the medal his
wife kept on display in the living room, he would always say, “The Army gave me
that for being first in the chow line 30 days in a row.” Then he’d take a sip
of beer and change the subject. No one ever pried the secret from him.
Likewise, modesty, patriotism and
optimism seemed hardwired into the other D-Day veteran I knew. But the similarities
ended there. He was a dirt-poor farm boy from rural Texas. He was anything but stoic. He
could swear with worst of them. He wasn’t much for religion. And he was a
He entered the Army Air Force
just out of high school. On D-Day, he punched through Fortress Europe in a
glider, courtesy of a C-47. He brought back more nightmares than medals—images
of Dachau and dead buddies,
starving civilians and crash landings. But the nightmares didn’t poison him. Or
more accurately, he learned to cope with the poison.
No one knows if it was Al Dowd’s plane towing Bill Eason’s glider in the
predawn darkness of June 6, 1944. But I like to think that these men were
tethered together, if only for a moment, as they stormed into the unknown to
carry out Gen. Marshall’s orders. That’s because these D-Day Everymen were my
grandfathers. I get my first name from Grandpa Dowd and my middle name from
A Better World
Like so many of their generation—600 World War II vets die each day—both have passed
from this life to the next. But their story lives, and has some resonance
beyond my family, because of what these men were and what they became.
Some 405,000 of them never had a
chance to become fathers or grandfathers—or start a family or finish college. But
those who survived the war would create a new and better world for us. They returned
home optimistic and patriotic and confident that they could do great
things—because, after all, they already had.
My Grandpa Dowd created a business
from scratch. From the most modest of beginnings—three friends selling
medical supplies to a handful of local doctors—it grew into one of the largest
medical-supply firms in the state. By the time he retired, his firm had
branched out into office supplies and heavy-duty hospital equipment. He employed
hundreds of employees over the decades, knew each by name and counted each as a
My Grandpa Eason went to college
on the GI Bill, worked on a factory line, invented a revolutionary
blood-testing device—out of his garage—and
then built a global company that one day merged with
a German firm. Just think about that. He and his generation changed the world
so much that after killing each other in two world wars, Americans and Germans
were doing business together.
I disagree with the notion that D-Day’s heroes were ordinary men who did
extraordinary things. Rather, they did extraordinary things because they were
extraordinary, because, like silver-haired Clark Kents, they walked among us
without pretense. They were extraordinary, quite simply, because there aren’t many
like them. Some say it’s wrong to put men like this on a pedestal, but I say
it’s wrong not to. We need them there to remind us of the price of our freedom
and our way of life.
What John Adams said
of the Revolutionary Generation is true of the World War II Generation: “Posterity!
You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your
freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it.”
Re-labeled the “Greatest Generation” in recent years, the World War II
Generation doesn’t have a monopoly on greatness, of course. The spirit of Utah
Beach and Omaha Beach lives on in every American who has answered when civilization
called for help—in Korea and Vietnam, during Operation Vittles and Operation
Tomodachi, on the Fulda Gap and 38th Parallel, in
Kuwait and Kosovo, Baghdad and Bosnia, Afghanistan and Abbottabad.
That brings us back to today.
Seventy years later, D-Day still offers lessons for those who have eyes to see.
First, deterring war is preferable to the
alternatives. Two-thousand years of history illustrate that peace
through strength works. It’s far less
costly in treasure and blood than scrambling to respond to aggression or rescue
fallen countries or recover lost freedoms. For evidence, compare the costs of
Pearl Harbor, Bataan, D-Day, Okinawa, Dresden, Dachau, Auschwitz and Hiroshima during
World War II with the costs of deterring the Red Army in the decades that
Second, alliances work. D-Day was an alliance operation, involving American,
British, Canadian and French forces. On this foundation of alliances, the
Atlantic Charter was written, Hitler and Tojo were defeated, the Berlin Airlift
was launched and West Berlin saved, Germany and Japan were rehabilitated, NATO
was built, and the Cold War was won. With Russian tanks rumbling to life on
Europe’s eastern flank and an autocrat redrawing Europe’s map, the NATO
alliance seems as important as ever.
Third, some things are worth fighting for (or against). Those
who are fighting our enemies in the shadows and sandstorms protect us from an
evil as real and insidious as Hitler. No matter what the White
House says, what we’re in the midst of is a war—a just and necessary war.
As in 1944, it’s a battle for our way of life, for freedom, for civilization
itself. Too many of our countrymen fail to grasp this.
Reagan’s 1984 Normandy speechpoints the way out of the murky moral relativism that characterizes too much of
our public life. After talking about all they had done, all they had won, all
they had lost, Reagan turned to a handful of D-Day veterans who had made the
journey back across the Atlantic and across the Channel: “You risked everything
here. Why? Why did you do it?” Reagan knew the answer. “The men of Normandy had
faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all
humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead, or on
the next,” he explained, his voice rising and falling with that perfect
cadence. “It was the deep knowledge—and pray God we have not lost it—that there
is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the
use of force for conquest.”
Fourth, America remains the indispensable nation. In
2014, even more than in 1944, no country enfolds the full spectrum of power
(economic, military, cultural) andembraces universally appealing attributes (political pluralism, economic
opportunity, cultural openness) like the United States. To be sure, some
countries possess some of these attributes, but only the United States enfolds
all of them. No matter what the declinists say, this confluence of strengths
gives the United States an edge in the 21st century. No matter what the
isolationists say, this confluence of strengths gives the United States a
special responsibility to serve as civilization’s first responder and last line
of defense. And no matter what the post-nationalists say, this confluence of
strengths makes America exceptional.
That leads to a final lesson from D-Day.
Americans have every reason to be patriotic and proud about yesterday—and
optimistic about tomorrow. Sadly, the patriotic
optimism—or optimistic patriotism—of the World War II Generation is something
many of their children scorn and many of their grandchildren and
great-grandchildren simply don’t understand. With their blood, sweat, treasure
and ingenuity, the heroes of World War II built what came to be called “The
American Century.” Most of us will never know how
much it cost them to preserve our freedom. To borrow a phrase from Adams, the
least we can do is “make a good use of it” by
reviving the free-enterprise system they handed down to us, pursuing possibilities and opportunities rather than lowering our sights, re-embracing self-reliance rather than statism,
our word in international dealings and defending those who defend us.
If we do these things, the 21st century will be another American
century. If we don’t, it will be shaped by someone else.
*Dowd is a senior fellow with the American Security Council Foundation, where he writes The Dowd Report, a monthly review of international events and their impact on U.S. national security.