WASHINGTON -- "At this place, at this Memorial, we acknowledge a debt of long-standing to an entire generation of Americans: those who died; those who fought and worked and grieved and went on. They saved our country, and thereby saved the liberty of mankind. And now I ask every man and woman who saw and lived World War II -- every member of that generation -- to please rise as you are able, and receive the thanks of our great nation."
So said President George W. Bush at the dedication of the World War II Memorial last weekend in the nation's capital. Those members of what has been called the Greatest Generation rose and proudly received a long and sustained applause from an estimated 500,000 or more who were on the National Mall to honor them. From a distance, they also received the gratitude of millions of Americans who watched on television from their homes or attended simultaneous broadcasts of the dedication ceremony in dozens of communities around the country.
They waited 60 years for this day, and their pride was palpable. Despite aching backs and stiff joints, these men and women of the World War II generation stood tall and saluted smartly because their time had finally come. The generation that saved the world from tyranny was finally feted by a grateful nation.
"Well worth the wait." "Inspiring." "Finally!" "They deserve it." These were just some of the positive reviews from citizens of all stripes about the historic event on Memorial Day weekend. It occurred to me as I was making my way along the Mall to the Fox News broadcast booth last weekend that the reviews were all positive. There was no complaining. There were no protests. In the days that followed, police reported no arrests, no trouble.
It was a day of celebration and national pride. And that is what made it different from so many other events that have taken place on our National Mall in the shadows of Washington and Lincoln.
Unfortunately, in recent years, our National Mall has been used more often by leftist interest groups whose angry members show up with an attitude and an axe to grind. In the Vietnam years, rowdy, bawdy crowds came to protest the war. They burned bras and draft cards and "got high." From their public address systems, uplifting rhetoric and positive commentary was never to be heard. They denounced America's leaders, bad-mouthed our uniformed military and embraced only those Vietnam vets who threw their ribbons over fences. In the years since, activists have stormed the Mall to demand the "right" to have abortions, engage in homosexual activity, restrict ownership of firearms and peddle wacky environmental theories and liberal causes.
Unfortunately, many of those activists don't appreciate what it took to secure their freedom to protest. They should have traveled to the Mall last weekend to extend their appreciation to those veterans of World War II who stopped tyranny in its tracks.
If they missed that glorious celebration, they should tune in this weekend to watch President Bush pay tribute to those American and Allied troops who stormed Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, on the morning of June 6, 1944. They were a heroic group, braving stormy weather and rough seas to make it to Normandy. One of them was Jerry Markham, a member of an elite Navy combat demolition unit, later known as the Navy SEALs. When I interviewed him for a recent episode of "War Stories," he told me, "When we landed, it was just a shower of machine-gun fire."
Indeed it was. D-Day, the Allied invasion of France, was the biggest military operation in history. Eventually 2 million brave Allied servicemen would cross those beaches after slogging through neck-deep water, carrying over 100 pounds of gear. The cold, gray water of the English Channel ran red with the blood of those who were killed or wounded before even hitting the beach.
President Bush will commemorate their sacrifice this weekend. But for the first time, the German chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, will attend the ceremony. Schroeder, who was invited by French President Jacques Chirac, said that "this day is about much more than victory or defeat. It has become a symbol of the struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights." Schroeder explained that "it is only right that we Germans take part," while ignoring Germany's failure to take part in a present-day struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights.
Perhaps Schroeder wants to address the impressions of his countrymen like Franz Gockel, who was in the German infantry during the Normandy invasion. Gockel lamented to the London Telegraph this week that "D-Day is remembered almost exclusively from the Allied point of view."
"We Germans," Gockel continued, "have been depicted merely as the occupiers of France . . . (but) during D-Day, there were many French who were angry about the destruction of their towns and cities by American bombers."
Those French beaches are sacred. They are overlooked by the souls of nearly 10,000 Americans killed by German forces during the invasion of Normandy who now lie in the Normandy American Cemetery in the hills above. Schroeder would do well not to rewrite history and desecrate the sacrifice of American heroes. American liberals do enough of that on our National Mall in Washington. We don't need it in Normandy too.