Monday, May 31, 2010

This Memorial Day, 2010

Memorial Day for me was long linked to New Jersey's Tour of Somerville, a race I won as a junior and finished 3rd in as an elite yet always, always enjoyed. But the reality of the holiday is that is was conceived of to commemorate US soldiers who died during military service - something a trite more serious than my winning or losing a bike race in Jersey, eh?

My father and both his brothers served in the US Army, and while I never had the chance to don a uniform, I often thought what an honor it would be, and even went so far as to meet with recruiters for different branches of the service.

For most Americans, despite our being at war in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the notion of "war" is about as foreign a concept as Chinese human rights - there's no basis for even attempting to approximate the experience of one who's lived through a conflict, let alone fought in it (never mind he who died in battle, or those left behind). Yet I myself am fascinated by that momentous event known as World War II and never tire of learning more about the men who fought for both the Allies and the Axis, the various campaigns in which they died and their individual stories of heroism and triumph. Right now I'm especially interested in fighter aces of the German Luftwaffe, men who were probably some of the noblest soldiers in an ignoble conflict.

The highest-scoring ace of the war - and indeed the history of air combat - was the German Erich Hartmann, with 352 confirmed kills (and certainly many more that went unconfirmed). Three-hundred-and-fifty-two confirmed kills! By contrast, the last "Ace" in the US Navy was Randall "Duke" Cunningham, who scored five confirmed aerial victories during the Vietnam War. I cite the disparity in their scores not because I think Hartmann was any better a pilot than Cunningham, but rather because the historical conditions that enabled the German to tally such an unprecedented number of kills will likely never be repeated. And yet Hartmann was not the only German to have shot-down more than 300 opponents! His compatriot Gerhard Barkhorn claimed 301! (List of WWII air aces.)

We live in an age of technology so complex and sophisticated that nowadays a pilot need not even see with his own eyes the hostile enemy aircraft he intends to shoot down. And yet the danger to these men - and women - is no less great than it was for Hartmann and Barkhorn while they hacked away on the Eastern Front. Nor was the threat of death any less real for Randy Cunningham - though it wouldn't be a North Vietnamese MIG fighter that brought-about the California native's downfall, but rather a corruption scandal while he was a member of the US Congress... (proof that even heroes are mortal men who can be led astray by the temptations of a very material, self-focused world?) Cunningham's failures as a leader stand in direct contrast to Hartmann's heroism both during the War and after, when he endured 10 years of Soviet captivity.

But despite their fascinating stories, and service to their respective countries, neither man lost his life in combat. And while both deserve the recognition that has been duly accorded them, let us spare a thought now for the tens of thousands of American soldiers unknown to us who throughout the years have made the ultimate sacrifice and given their lives in battle to defend the interests of a nation and her people.

I previously wrote about Remembrance Day, and "Der Gute Kamerad,", a video of which I'll repost below. But let me leave you with "In Flanders Fields," written during WW I on 3 May 1915 by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae:

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.