WASHINGTON-Unlike most of the elderly men who assembled in this city for Memorial Day and the opening of the World War II Memorial, 84-year-old John R. Pennington of Orangeville, Ga., didn’t have much to say about the horrors of the battlefield. He served in Panama for most of the war, and when it was time to prepare for an overseas assignment, he was shipped to California just in time to celebrate the war’s end.
So you would hear from John R. Pennington nothing about the battles of North Africa and Italy; nothing about the beaches of Normandy, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Over by the Capitol, civilians armed with tape recorders were seated in a tent and encouraging old men and women to tell their stories about the war in the North Atlantic, in Burma, or in Army hospitals close to the front lines. John R. Pennington had nothing to say about that.
Nevertheless, men and women in shorts and T-shirts pointed in his direction, stopped to shake his hand, to pose for a picture with children, to thank him for his service. Among the thousands of old soldiers, so many of them shrunken and frail, John R. Pennington certainly stood out as he surveyed the granite, gold stars and fountains of the new memorial. Save for his shoes, which were brown and new, he was wearing the very uniform he wore 60 years ago, when the coming of peace saved him from combat. His waistline and his posture conceded nothing to time and gravity.
Another old soldier, paunchy and stooped, stopped and stared. “The last time I saw that uniform,” he told Mr. Pennington, “the guy wearing it was inside a casket.” The two men laughed.
Mr. Pennington was dressed in the brown woolen uniform of the Army Air Corps, a relic of another age, before the Air Force became a separate branch of the armed forces. He was delighted when a fortysomething stranger took a look at the uniform and said, “So you were a sergeant in the Army Air Corps”-not as a question, but as a fact.
“That’s pretty good,” he said. “Not everybody knows that.” A middle-aged man interrupted, and asked Mr. Pennington-Sergeant Pennington-to pose for a picture with his son, who was no more than 10. “That’s great,” the boy’s father said. They shook hands, and Mr. Pennington was on his way.
Mr. Pennington’s war now belongs to the ages; the war that may define that 10-year-old boy’s life has only just begun. Among the many differences between these two conflicts-the war on fascism then, the war on Islamic terrorism now-is the sense of shared sacrifice. When the G.I. generation went to war, observed one World War II veteran, “everybody was giving something” to the war effort. Some gave their sons and daughters, husbands and wives. Others gave their labor; others, their scrap iron and their rubber and even their bacon fat. Today, however, “only a few are” sacrificing, said the veteran, a man named Bob Dole.
The former Senator, his right arm famously made useless during the Italian campaign, shared a Memorial Day platform with a onetime colleague and fellow veteran, George McGovern, during the reunion weekend. These two old men, seemingly divided by party and ideology, shared a common and unforgettable experience when they were young. They were soldiers in a brutal war whose justice was never questioned. The bonds formed of that common experience transcend other differences, and as the two men spoke of and to each other with obvious affection and respect, it was hard not to contrast their civility with today’s talk-show politics of ridicule and contempt.
George McGovern, a man whose very name is associated-grotesquely-with pacifism and loony leftism, was a bomber pilot who won the Distinguished Flying Cross for getting his Liberator home despite the loss of three of its four engines. Like most soldiers who have lost friends and seen horrible sights, Mr. McGovern and Mr. Dole clearly despise war. And yet they know that the world is a dangerous place, and that liberty doesn’t come without cost. “There has never been a day when I would not have given my life for the defense of my country,” Mr. McGovern said in that familiar soft voice of his.
The G.I. generation helped save not just the nation, but the world itself from what Winston Churchill called “the abyss of a new Dark Age.” But as the G.I.’s recede into the history books, new threats have revealed themselves. This time, civilization’s enemies do not espouse what Churchill called a “perverted science,” but a twisted form of religion. Its adherents have made plain their cause: conquest and death, not co-existence and toleration.
The new war belongs to a new generation. The G.I.’s have done their work. Now, they leave their example.