Never Have So Many
It is September, 1939. The Germans have run the British and French into the sea and only a miracle on the beaches of Dunkirk prevent an entire army from being annihilated. England stands alone against a Nazi controlled Europe whose light has been all but extinguished by its occupiers. The US has not yet entered the war and will not join for another two years. England is alone. Hitler knows that a land invasion of the UK will only succeed if he can obliterate the Royal Air Force ( RAF ) and eliminate any possible impediment to a channel crossing from Calais. While Hitler and his Generals plot the Operation Sealion, Goring unleashes his Luftwaffe. The Battle of Britain begins.
The initial days of the battle for air supremacy over the Channel do not go well for the British. They are shooting down Luftwaffe planes at a very high rate but they are also sustaining heavy casualties and cannot provide seasoned pilots fast enough to replace the more experienced killed and wounded airmen. In this war of attrition, the Germans have the advantage. For weeks on end, the battle rages fought by under trained pilots on little or no sleep. The Germans only increase their attacks on air bases and begin targeting cities.
There is a story of Churchill visiting Biggin Hill, an RAF airbase in Kent, south of London. As he walked in unannounced, he found an exhausted and distraught group of young pilots, many in their teens, shattered by the experiences of the previous weeks – – already having experienced the trauma of watching friends killed in aerial battles. Often one British Spitfire or Hurricane would fight against multiple Stukas and Messerschmitts.
Churchill looked at the young men and paused in thoughtful reflection. They were too exhausted to even rise from their chairs or cots to honor their Prime Minister. Winston looked at them and asked two simple rhetorical questions: “If not you, than who? If not now, then when?“ The Prime Minster went back to London and the pilots went on to win an improbable victory and arrest the sinister march of tyranny. The famous phrase, “Never have so many owed so much to so few” was Churchill’s eternal tribute to the RAF. The story of this epic battle and triumph of the human spirit is detailed in a remarkable BBC series and book called ” Finest Hour” by Phil Craig and Tim Clayton.
As a child, I would spend hours, painting soldiers and recreating battle fields constructed of chicken wire and paper mache. Thirty years later, my den is still jammed with detritus of war – – history books, maps and soldiers, a living museum to a lifetime fascination with the dark gods of men, arms and conflict. As I grew older, I realized that war was not something to be glorified and that too often old men would make wars and young men were left to fight them. The carnage and chaos of countless millenniums of battle have left a jagged scar across much of our world yet we seem so determined to never truly learn from our past.
I was reading an article recently in Military History magazine that attempted to graph the time line of civilization and armed conflict. The author, with the obvious benefit of hindsight, evaluated the social, psychological, economic and societal consequences of war on those who were “ victorious” and those who were “ vanquished”. The article contends that war as a tool of foreign policy should always be a last resort. Wars have never proven to be viable, long term solutions for any country. Warfare drains national treasuries, deflects attention from critical domestic issues and devastates a generation of young men and women. War has proven in some instances a necessary evil to rid the world of tyranny. However, too often, warring nations’ national, economic and geopolitical agendas are obfuscated, self serving and myopic. History, as author Barbara Tuchman described it, is “a distant mirror“ which allows us the opportunity for reflection. But like many mechanisms of self deception, we often avoid hard examination ‘lest we see something we do not like. Tuchman depicted the hapless repetition of war in her book “A March of Folly”. Her subliminal question ? Is mankind destined to keep repeating the same mistakes ad infinitum until it finally succeeds in its own extinction?
The USA is at war. Violence, indescribable tragedy and casualties continue to escalate in Afghanistan and continue in Iraq, a land once considered the cradle of civilization and now the snare that grips the heel of the Western World. As I walk our streets and travel domestically, I am rarely reminded that we are at war. Few live in communities who routinely give up their young to the armed forces for the opportunity to avoid a future that seems so stacked against them.
For most of us, there is no rationing or personal sacrifice beyond those whose families serve in the military. We have an impatient need to resolve the bloody confusion and heal sectarian fault lines that trace back thousands of years. Irrespective of how we got there, we are in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have dispatched brave men and women to assist a process that is not too dissimilar to Reconstruction after the Civil War. How long did it take for true societal change to occur following Appomattox Courthouse in April of 1865? I think it was about 100 years after the Jim Crow that we began to actually see civil rights transformation in our country. As we consider the political, social and theological conflicts in which we are now enjoined, it challenges us to remember history – – are we Rome on the cusp of its great decline? Or are we bridging theological divides to create an important secular oasis in a sea of Middle Eastern petro-authoritarianism? What happens if we stay? What happens if we leave? I don’t really know the answers but I love living in a country that affords me the freedom to openly debate the gray edges of issues and challenges where there is no clear moral imperative.
On a recent trip to Washington DC, I visited Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, and was reminded of the high price we pay for our freedom. Arlington reminds us that our democracy is not secured by private equity, political parties or petroleum but on a bedrock of sacrifice, informed political activism and selfless service. Those of us who benefit by the freedoms afforded by those who fight for us would be well served to remember on Memorial Day that somewhere out there is a real soldier, crouching behind a real wall, pinned down by real gunfire. Let’s hope in their darkest moment that they are reassured by a belief that back home, everyone in this nation is doing their duty to be relentlessly debating the best course of action necessary to preserve our nation’s security, improve our standing in the world community, and to honor and protect those who protect us. If not us than who? If not now, then when ?