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Jewish World Review May 18, 2000/ 13 Iyar, 5760

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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World War II gave us our true heroes --
I WON'T BE DENIED my heroes, even if they deny themselves.

I'm talking about the World War II fellows, specifically a batch of B-29 Superfortress bombers and crews whom I praised in a dinner speech Friday night. I spoke to them of leadership -- theirs (Churchill/Roosevelt) and ours (you know who) and how leadership translates to culture.

It began something like this: "In 1940, Winston Churchill addressed the British House of Commons for the first time as prime minister. Famously, he said, 'I have nothing to give but blood, toil, tears and sweat.'

"Some 50 years later, Bill Clinton addressed the American voters. Infamously, he said, 'I feel your pain.' I ask you, to which generation would you rather belong?"

These characteristic statements -- Churchill's and Clinton's -- convey as succinctly as any the stories of our two generations, the challenges posed and our responses to them.

One is profound, the other trite. One suggests courage, the other emotion. One is tough and gutsy and commands, "Follow me," while the other proffers the studied empathy of an ineffective therapist who, lacking real insight, merely listens and urges, "Tell me more."

Without genius, it is easy to see that nations become the messages they accept.

Summoned to courage, they behave heroically. Summoned to empathic self-examination, well, look around. The previous century began with a drumroll; it ended with an ear-numbing whine.

That's why I eagerly accepted the invitation to speak to Tom Brokaw's "greatest generation." I went with one purpose in mind, to praise famous men. I thanked them for saving the world from fascism and nazism; I urged them to tell their stories so that future generations might learn from them.

For the greatest generation is also the silent generation. They don't talk much about their war experiences, except perhaps among themselves.

The meeting I attended was the 25th reunion of the 73rd Bomb Wing, which essentially won the war even before we dropped the A-bomb. These were the men who bombed Japan . . . and bombed Japan . . . until that nation's urban-industrial centers were cinder dust.

Of the 600 who attended their reunion in Norfolk, Va., the youngest today is 74, I was told. Yet when I looked out into that crowd, I didn't see grandfathers or even fathers. Having watched the newsreels and videos of their daredevil performances, their youthful elegance, their immense courage, I saw, well, hunks. Gleaming white smiles, cut muscles and chiseled jaws. And I saw courage of a sort we rarely see.

So I told them that. I also told them that my generation views them as heroes. And I thanked them.

Surprising to me, especially in this age of self-adulation, they declined to accept service on those remarks. Though politely appreciative, these men whose acts of bravery have permitted the rest of us to live bountifully, do not see themselves as heroes.

"We just did what we were told," so many of them said.

Typically modest, these veterans of the world's worst war are humble and hubris-free. They, who felt no one's pain but their own -- who really did give their blood, toil, tears and sweat -- are still bashful in the presence of praise.

I like that in a hero.

JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.


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