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The small boat we saw in the rain a couple of days ago is still bobbing in the Bay this sunny morning. Sausalito is visible in the background.
"One cannot look across the long, seemingly endless rows of headstones that mark the military cemeteries throughout Europe and the Pacific or the great memorials and earthen mounds memorializing the dead of Eastern Europe without a sense of the terrible cost of victory in World War II. The cold stones underscore the brevity of those lives cut short in early adulthood - men who never again saw their families and homes. And as each year passes, fewer and fewer elderly visitors come to these lonely corners of foreign lands. The generation that fought World War II is now fading into the shadows of history. By 1999 in the United States, those who served were dying at the rate of 1,000 per day. By the third decade of the twenty first century, they will all be gone.
As the past recedes from memory and takes form on the printed page, historians and other commemorators have begun to depict victory in that terrible conflict in soft words. A number have suggested that the Allied war effort was nothing more than the opposite side of the same coin - that the Allied cause was as morally bankrupt as the Axis cause, that an American or British war crime can be found for every one committed by the Germans or the Japanese. Across the ledger from Nanking, Rotterdam, Belgrade, Oradour-sur-Glane, or Malmédy, they place the Allied refusal to bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz, the starvation of the German POWs at war's end, and the incineration of Hiroshima - that worst of all "crimes against humanity."
These advocates for moral equivalence are wrong. In considering the war's human cost, those of us privileged to live at the dawn of a new millenium should renew our effort to remember why the war was fought and why so many were called to pay the ultimate price for victory. The wars unleashed by the Japanese in 1937 and by the Germans in 1939 came close to destroying the two great centers of world civilization and to imposing in their stead imperial regimes founded on racial superiority, slavery, and genocide. They did not succeed because of the extraordinary efforts and sacrifices made by Allied soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines from around the world - Americans, Australians, Britons, Chinese, French, Indians, Poles, Russians, Ukranians and innmumerable other nationalities.
The words of Pericles uttered in his funeral oration memorializing the Athenian dead in the Peloponnesian War and recorded by that greatest of all historians, Thucydides, best capture the debt of remembrance and respect we owe:
'To me it seems that the consummation which has overtaken these men shows us the meaning of manliness in its first revelation and in its final proof. Some of them, no doubt, had their faults; but what we ought to remember first is their gallant conduct against the enemy in defense of their native land. They have blotted out evil with good, and done more service to the commonwealth than they ever did harm in their private lives. No one of these men weakened because he wanted to go on enjoying his wealth; no one put off the awful day in the hope he might live to escape his poverty and grow rich...In the fighting, they thought it more honorable to stand their ground and suffer death than to give in and save their lives. So they fled from the reproaches of men, abiding with life and limb the brunt of battle; and in a small moment of time, the climax of their lives, a culmination of glory, not of fear, were swept away from us.'