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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein

Posted: November 25, 2009 02:35 PM

Obama's First Wartime Thanksgiving

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"Here it is, another Thanksgiving Day that I won't be home," wrote U.S. Army Private Thomas D. Curry. "I hope it is the last one this way."

It was Nov. 23, 1944. The ground was snowy and frozen in and around the murderous Hurtgen Forest, at the gates of Nazi Germany.

"We still have a lot to be thankful for," Curry wrote his mother.

"Some of the things that happen over here don't seem possible."

Indeed: Curry's 83rd Infantry Division suffered 23,980 casualties during the 241 days it fought from Omaha Beach to within 60 miles of Berlin -- typical for most American units. Whole platoons, companies and regiments were shredded, with a 170 per cent casualty rate overall.

Last month I stood on Omaha Beach, contemplating the numbers.

The sky looked like black ink in water. A sharp autumn wind spit drops of rain. Far down the quiet, unadorned beach, a couple walked a dog.

Under my feet, the mustard-colored sand, once slick with red blood, felt holy. I knelt down and scooped a handful, patting it into a tin, and carefully put it in my pocket.

It was low tide. I looked at the surf, far gentler than it was on June 6, 1944, and then at the dunes. GIs had to run across 150 yards of empty beach into the teeth of German guns.

Most of the first wave didn't make it, but other kept coming behind them.

Why? Good training, sure, a fear of chickening out in front of their buddies -- and no place to go but forward.

But they also believed.

On D-Day alone there were over 10,000 American casualties, with 2,499 GIs dead before sundown. In the Battle of Normandy altogether, 37,000 Allied ground troops were killed. Another 16,714 pilots and air crewmen were lost.

The numbers rose by hundreds of thousands as the troops pushed into Germany.

Naturally, I thought of Iraq and Afghanistan, where our casualties -- statistically insignificant, if equally poignant for every family, compared to Normandy and the rest of World War Two -- have troubled us so deeply.

Why?

In the depths of that war, when casualties were in the hundreds of thousands, President Roosevelt thought the sacrifice cause for celebration. He proclaimed Nov. 23, 1944, "a national day of Thanksgiving."

Roosevelt's proclamation said:

In this year of liberation, which has seen so many millions freed from tyrannical rule, it is fitting that we give thanks with special fervor to our Heavenly Father for the mercies we have received individually and as a nation and for the blessings He has restored, through the victories of our arms and those of our allies, to His children in other lands.


For the preservation of our way of life from the threat of destruction; for the unity of spirit which has kept our Nation strong; for our abiding faith in freedom; and for the promise of an enduring peace, we should lift up our hearts in thanksgiving.


In the bitterly cold foxholes of the Hurtgen Forest, GIs most likely greeted such words with derision.

Yet they fought on. And Americans were united behind them.

Now another war president, Barack Obama, faces his first Thanksgiving with U.S. troops dying in the field.

But Americans are not feeling grateful, even though their troops freed hundreds of thousands of Afghani women and children, not to mention men, from the medieval Taliban, routed al Qaeda, and chased Osama Bin Laden and his murderous thugs into the caves of Pakistan.

All this at a cost of 927 U.S. combat deaths over eight years -- roughly equivalent to a few hour's casualties on many days in World War Two.

What's not to be grateful for?

Yet we're not.

And that's Obama's challenge: To persuade Americans that Afghanistan is as fully worth fighting as World War Two.

If he can't, then even the smallest trickle of casualties, apparently, will be too much for the country to bear.

Roosevelt, and the GIs who stormed ashore in Normandy, never had that problem.

One attack on the homeland was enough.


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