The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum recently published a beautiful “anniversary” edition of World War II air battles. For those intrigued by World War II fighters and bombers, it’s a beautiful portfolio of these incredible machines, and the remarkable diversity of aircraft produced during this relatively short period of time. These aircraft were part of a heroic industrial effort as a nation to become the “arsenal of democracy.”
If you had asked me what stood out the most after having read through the entire edition and peeled avidly through pages of iconic pictures of Corsairs, P-51 Mustangs and B-17 bombers, among others, it was the first sentence on the first page of the 96-page edition. It simply read: “They taught us the power of working together.”
There is a tendency nowadays to dismiss socio-political eruptions like vaccination battles, culture wars, political polarization, tribalism and race in America as transitory, ephemeral dustups that will soon pass. And given the hardy constitution of the United States (pun intended), no real damage would come to the health and well-being of America.
I fear to the contrary that in diagnosing America’s physiology the reality is probably much worse. Take for example the bones of our nation — infrastructure — as a prima facie example. Recent administrations, Democrat and Republican alike, have acknowledged the desperate need for attention to its crumbling condition. Yet all manner of political excuses are made to block efforts to secure the future health of our nation’s bones, mostly because one side doesn’t want the other side to get credit. My party right or wrong, my party. Political talking points divert our attention from this reality and confirm the presence of our life-threatening and polarized zero-sum politics. Political expediency confounds those of us who can’t understand why the power and satisfaction of working together to lift up our nation has gone missing.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson put it rather succinctly and pathetically in his speech to the United Nations’ General Assembly this past week when he referred to this malaise as “the adolescence of humanity,” declaring in effect that it was time for mankind to grow up.
What’s brought on this malaise? Choose your underlying cause(s). The politics of desperation wrapped in a post-truth society? Social media and its mindless mazes of misinformation and disinformation? The era and the glorification of the “Big Me”? The growth in economic inequality? The growing blend of ethnic diversity and its threats to a historically WASP nation state? Globalization and the diminished hegemony of the United States?
On Dec. 7, 1941, the United States was attacked on the Pacific side, adding to the threats emanating from the European side and the malicious machinations of Nazi Germany. These were very real existential threats to our nation’s sovereignty. Our democracy was in jeopardy. Yet our response was axiomatic… link arms and unify with a consensus of purpose. This was one of the most historic challenges in America’s history and our people’s response from what has come to be known as “The Greatest Generation” was emblematic of what we believe we are as a nation.
But today things seem different. Today’s threats seem cloaked in what some believe to be ambiguity: the need for vaccinations to stem the spread of an epidemic; to believe or not to believe in climate change; the need for bold economic action to deal with the challenges of a growing China; the need to deal with economic inequality; the need to deal with gun violence; the need to deal with disparities in social justice; the need to deal with the cancer of misinformation and disinformation which so easily metastasizes on social media.
I’m concerned by what I believe to be a remarkable number of Americans who see these issues as transitory, even non-toxic issues that don’t conflate with Pearl Harbor. Yet we lose more people now, annually, to gun violence and viruses than multiples of those courageous soldiers lost at Pearl Harbor.
These 21st century pathogens that are infecting our nation, these zero-sum tribal bickerings and brawls, not only weaken our nation’s “immune” system, but they also threaten to destroy what has made America great, our ability as an exceptional nation to use our collective will and determination to overcome adversity and to lead the world in innovation, industry, economic drive and striving for human rights.
In between the Air and Space Museum’s pages of pictures of the aircraft that played such an immense role in determining the outcome of World War II, there were astounding pictures of huge factories the size of multiple football fields with rows and rows of bombers, fighters and factories converted to produce bomb sights, tanks and ammunition, all assembled in a matter of months through shear determination and collective will. Pictures of woman riveting in the fuselages of aircraft under construction with metal splinters in their hands and arms, and other women transporting finished planes to airbases for combat. Left unphotographed were the incredible sacrifices made by the American people who collectively gave up food, rubber, metal, leather, clothing and other conveniences to achieve victory. This was not cheap patriotic talk; this was assiduous patriotic action to achieve goals to lift up America and to meet its challenges.
Sadly, we are losing members of this “Greatest Generation” at a quickening rate. My father-in-law passed this past week, aged 95. He served in the Navy and nearly died in the Pacific from a bullet wound. He recovered in a hospital in Honolulu, and with extraordinary courage and determination he found his ship somewhere in the Pacific, and then finally witnessed from sea the bombing of Nagasaki that ended the war.
I fear that we are losing that generation’s spirit of determination to safe-keep the legacy, forte and excellence of our nation… the spirit of determination to overcome the incredible challenges we face including climate change, health care, violence, infrastructure, income disparity, and the threats to our military and economic security from authoritarian nations.
I would humbly submit that the best way to honor those past and passing of “The Greatest Generation,” to whom so much is owed by so many, is to emulate their lessons in the power of working together.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.