Entry of the Color Guard at the National World War II Museum
More than 1,150,000 Americans have died in the wars our nation has waged to gain – and maintain – its freedom and independence. Through World War II the greatness of our nation was founded in the concept of shared sacrifice, the belief that those in uniform — and the families they left behind — shouldn’t shoulder the burden of defending our way of life alone.
Former President Teddy Roosevelt wisely observed that “…in the long run, success or failure [of the Republic] will be conditioned upon the way in which the average man, the average woman, does his or her duty, first in the ordinary everyday affairs of life, and next in those great occasional cries which call for heroic virtues. The average citizen must be a good citizen if our Republics are to succeed.”
Our veterans, and those men and women in uniform, continue to do their part, even when harm’s way appears on our own military bases at home. But at a time in our Republic’s history when Veterans Day has sadly become notable more for its holiday shopping promotions and as a day off from school or work, one wonders what has become of the Good Citizen of whom Roosevelt spoke?
Tom Brokaw giving a speech at the National World War II Museum
Last Friday, while in New Orleans for the dedication ceremony of the National World War II Museum’s new expansion space, including its one of a kind 4-D theater and film, Beyond all Boundaries, I witnessed the work of many Good Citizens, but two in particular worth highlighting: Tom Hanks and Tom Brokaw. Their official roles were as hosts of the various events, none more moving than the Parade of Veterans, 350 men and women who served in the Army, Navy, Marine Corp, Army Air Force and Coast Guard during World War II. Tom Brokaw told the audience that writing The Greatest Generation was “the single most important professional experience of my life.” Tom Hanks spoke lovingly of his father, a Navy veteran, and the importance of each person doing their part as a prerequisite to achieving the long sought victory, even if their role was that of a machinist.
But behind the scenes, when the cameras weren’t rolling, the “Toms” were everywhere: arriving early and staying late, serving food to the veterans, attending cocktail parties and dinners for supporters of the museum, and meeting with museum officials to discuss additional ways they could help to preserve the legacy of the men and women who saved our world from the greatest threat it has ever known. As Dr. Nick Mueller, President of the museum, often stated, every time he and his friend of 30 years, the late Dr. Stephen Ambrose, called the “Toms” for help, they both enthusiastically appeared.
Tom Hanks talking with veterans
Personally I was struck less by what Tom Hanks and Tom Brokaw did than I was the spirit in which they did it: gracious, humble, honored to be of help. They were the Good Citizens, in this case extraordinary men applying their resources — none more powerful than their time —in a way that served as an inspiring example for others. These are the same traits I’ve witnessed in my interviews with the citizen-soldiers known as the Monuments Men, a small group of men and women who saved and preserved the greatest cultural treasures from the destruction of World War II and theft by Hitler and the Nazis: graciousness, humility, inspiration.
So on this Veterans Day, I think NOT of the commercialism of the holiday or the de-coupling of the bond of shared sacrifice that built our great nation, rather I take hope in the example set by Tom Hanks, Tom Brokaw, and many other Good Citizens in New Orleans this past weekend. I give thanks to our veterans, and all those in military service, including their loved ones, who keep us safe.