The Real American Heritage

From The New York Times:

Aug. 18, 2017

Before they die, before they disappear into the opaque mist of history, the last Americans to fight Nazi Germany have to face one more blast of something they thought they’d eliminated in the bloodiest war of all time.

Every day we lose an average of 362 World War II veterans — the boys from the Bronx, the farmers from Nebraska, the kids yanked from late-adolescent languor to fight a monster. I asked one of them, Caesar Civitella, Nazi-killer and son of an Italian immigrant, how it felt to see Hitler’s flags paraded over our soil last weekend.

And make no mistake, those were the flags of a genocidal force at the Charlottesville, Va., rally last weekend, the one in which some “very fine people,” in President Trump’s infamous words, participated. The polo-shirt fascists were brandishing Othala rune and Black Sun symbols — both used by the SS, the paramilitary muscle behind the slaughter of six million Jews.

“These neo-Nazis, whatever you call them — I thought we’d ended all that,” Civitella said, sounding both mournful and feisty. “These people have nothing to do with American values.”

I found this soldier of World War II at his home in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he is a local hero for living a life that deserves a movie. He will be 94 on Aug. 21, the day of the total solar eclipse — “Jesus Christ’s way of saying happy birthday,” he said.

Within a generation’s time, nearly all of the 16 million American veterans who served in World War II will be gone. And the biggest insult, the gravest disservice of Trump’s giving comfort to Hitler sympathizers, is to those who fought to save the world from evil more than 70 years ago.

“Because I’m old, now 94, I recognize these omens of doom,” wrote Harry Leslie Smith, a Royal Air Force veteran, in an essay this week in The Guardian. “Chilling signs are everywhere, perhaps the biggest being that the U.S. allows itself to be led by Donald Trump, a man deficient in honor, wisdom and just simple human kindness.”

To those grave deficiencies, you can add one more: historical illiteracy. In his grievance-burst of a news conference this week, Trump had this to say about those who showed up to protest the neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates: “You are changing history, you’re changing culture.”

In truth, it was the raising of statues in the early 20th century — when the Lost Cause whitewash of the confederacy of slaveholders was in full swing — that was an attempt to change both culture and history. George Washington will be next, Trump said, using a line that neo-Nazis throw around at their hatefests.

The founders, flawed but brilliant men, put their lives at risk to create a nation built on principles that took a long time to realize. Robert E. Lee was a traitor, the best general of a war that killed more Americans than any other. His statue no more belongs on a pedestal than does that of Hitler’s most proficient military man.

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