Tuesday, June 01, 2004

D-Day and the Little Guy

It is too easy to forget 60 year old heroism.

On June 6th, 1944, D-Day, 175,000 soldiers crossed the English Channel and stormed the beaches of Normandy. There, they encountered tripwires, land mines, flamethrowers and fortifications; by the end of D-Day, 2,500 soldiers were dead. But their sacrifice was not in vain. 11 months later, Europe, (and it’s concentration camps), was liberated from the Nazis.

The Allied soldiers were unlikely victors, a mixed multitude of (mostly)18 to 20 year olds. The army took everyone, from squirrel shooting rural boys to bookish big city scholars. Inexperience made no difference. Peter Masters, a Jewish refugee from Vienna, was in the British Army’s 10th Commando Brigade. When he enlisted, he was asked whether he could shoot a gun, handle a boat, or work a radio. He replied that he had once shot a bb gun, occasionally rowed a boat, and never used a radio. The army took him anyway! Remarkably, these amateur warriors developed into a courageous and powerful fighting force. And these average Joes are the true heros of World War II.

The Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle advanced the “great man theory of history”. According to this view, it is the exceptional people who decide the fate of humanity. The teeming masses are mindless followers, moulded by the great man in his image. Indeed, there is ample Biblical evidence for this theory. Abraham, Moses, Joshua and David seem to singlehandedly start religions, win battles and even stop the sun.

However, it’s usually the small, anonymous heros who save the day. The Book of Judges is filled with marginal characters who suddenly find themselves thrust to the forefront. Gideon, Jepthah, Deborah are everyman heros, the little guy filling a void in leadership. In Hasidic lore, God listens closely to the peasant woman’s sigh and the ignorant shepherd’s flute, and saves the world because of their simple petitions. The grandiose prayers of the great man cannot compare to the sincere words of the little guy.

D-Day was a triumph of the little guy. It was they who risked their lives, fought courageously and liberated Europe. General Dwight D. Eisenhower reported how he went to see the 101st Airborne division before they took off for D-Day. He says on the runway, he saw a short private, “more equipment than soldier” who turned to him and saluted. Then the private turned in the direction of Germany and said: “look out Hitler, here we come”.

It is because of privates like these that Europe was liberated.

Great men arrive all too infrequently; the rest of the time, it’s up to everyone else to rescue the world. As we find ourselves increasingly embroiled in an international war against terror, it’s time once again for the little guy to come to the rescue.

No comments: