In the end, war is always about flesh and blood. Oh, we use unmanned drones and satellites for reconnaissance work, and laser-guided "smart bombs" to minimize human loss. But, in the end, war always comes down to man against man.
Those who've gone in harm's way know the truth of General William Sherman's definition of war. "War is hell," he said, initiating the "scorched earth" policy for his army's 1864 march through Georgia.
War reminds us that we are animals. Despite standing atop the animal kingdom pyramid, war brings out the basic nature of the beast. If Darwin's "survival of the fittest" provided the only rules governing warfare, perhaps we would not find it so horrific.
But humans think, and reason. Convoluted then, we think that we are more than animal, hence the slaughter of even one human becomes too much for some of us to bear.
So we look for other ways to coexist. Some eschew war, and say flatly that they will not fight. They demonstrate against those who go in harm's way to defend their right to demonstrate.
That is why America will always need the few, the proud, the Marines. Because in our developed, civilized world, our country teems with many who have never known discomfort, depravation or hunger. The poorest of Americans live in luxury compared to the rest of the world. America's minorities have the right to be all that they can be: with voting rights, drive luxury cars, purchase high-end homes. Even the hordes of illegal immigrants in America receive millions of dollars in health care before being expelled.
Currently, America is at war in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Does anyone know it? Daily news coverage runs to the sinking economy and the high price of gasoline. War rages in the Middle East and in the Himalayas as good men pay the ultimate price to bring freedom to others, but does anyone even notice? Our nation seems simply to ignore the situation, burying our collective head in the sand. We will think about it tomorrow, or whenever it becomes individually urgent to us.
World War II was termed "the last good war," so called because it was the last war fought purely between good and evil. The lines were cut and dried: the Japanese, Germans and Italians were the bad guys; everybody else was a good guy.
At issue was totalitarianism versus freedom; polar opposites, which guaranteed a fight to the death. So very many instances from WWII revealed the cruel nature of the human animal: the Bataan Death March, Auschwitz, et al, ad infinitum. That's why, today, we try to sanitize modern warfare, to make it as clean and neat and free from "collateral damage" as possible, is it not?
Sixty-four years ago, on June 6, 1944, in the largest amphibious landing ever attempted, Operation Overlord, the good guys assaulted Adolph Hitler's "Fortress Europe." The beaches in the northern region of France known as Normandy were given code names. Americans landed on Omaha and Utah.
Flesh and blood can only stand so much. The human body suffers a considerable disadvantage when pitted against flying metal. Indeed, hundreds of American boys stepped off their landing craft at Omaha and Utah never to reach the beach, so intense was the battle.
Several years ago Steven Spielberg produced a film, "Saving Private Ryan," the opening sequence of which depicted the Normandy landing. Actual World War II D-Day veterans were interviewed after viewing the film; they all agreed that Spielberg got it right. One said that the only thing missing was the stench of death that hung over the beach that day.
My three children were pretty young when "Saving Private Ryan" debuted. I wrestled with taking them to see the film, concerned if they were mature enough to deal with the carnage. In the end, I took them, so that they might come to understand the terrible price others paid in the name of freedom.
In central Virginia, not far from Lynchburg and Roanoke, is the little town of Bedford. That village built a D-Day Memorial, staffed by town folk volunteers. People come from all over the world to visit the Bedford memorial, and to reflect upon the price of freedom.
The uninformed might ask, why Bedford? Why did this little village make such an effort to build a memorial to a battle that happened so long ago, and so far away?
Well, some 3,200 people lived in Bedford in 1944. Lost on June 6 of that year were 19 of the town's 35 sons who landed in Normandy. Bedford paid a higher price for freedom, per capita, than did any other American town. Bedford's D-Day Memorial was built to remember the 19, to honor them, and to remind the rest of us that freedom is not free.
One of the most poignant things from "Saving Private Ryan," upon which I continually reflect, is that as the film develops you become familiar with the men in the squad who are searching for Private Ryan. You learn of their families, their jobs in civilian life, their hopes and dreams. In the end, when six of the eight have perished, you're left with the inestimable sadness of knowing that in reality, thousands of Americans - including the 19 Bedford boys - died for freedom that day, leaving behind unfulfilled hopes, dreams, and heartbroken families.
Bedford's D-Day Memorial reminds us that real people gave their lives to literally save the world. Defining what they did, and why they did it, is nigh to impossible. But the words of a noted attorney come pretty close, I suppose.
Clarence Darrow, famous for his role in the Scopes Trial, once said this of freedom: "You can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other man's freedom. You can only be free - if I am free."
And so, from Bedford, Virginia as well as from every mountain top in America, let freedom ring.
Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.