Seventy-eight years ago today, the Nazi death camp Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army, and in April of the same year, the U.S. 6th Armored Division freed 21,000 Jews in Buchenwald, including the future Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. In another part of Germany, as a young Sergeant Henry Kissinger entered camp after camp, he wondered if he would find any of the 57 relatives he knew had disappeared from their homes during the Shoah.
According to one account, General Dwight Eisenhower reportedly “turned white at the scene inside the gates but insisted on seeing the entire camp.” Upon surveying the scene inside the gates, he said, “We are told that the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least he will know what he is fighting against.” Eisenhower, who was raised in the simple biblical traditions of the American plains, knew that his soldiers were liberating the descendants of those who had given Americans the Word and the notion that there was an unbroken continuum between the Hebrew people and the New World.
America’s founders bestowed upon their towns names like Hebron, Bethesda, Bethlehem, and New Canaan, reflecting a deep respect for the Jewish people, faith, and their “Promised Land.” In his 1790 letter to the Touro Synagogue, George Washington signaled a new dawn for Western civilization — that those whose survival and perseverance laid the intellectual and spiritual foundation for western religion, literature, art, the renaissance, and the enlightenment were welcome in a new land.
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights…the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.
Washington was not preaching mere tolerance; he was calling for revolutionary acceptance. The late Charles Krauthammer argued that Washington saw America as the new Jerusalem, where peoples of the world could converge in peace, worship in freedom, and enjoy the greatest of unchartered rights — the right to be left alone.
This link between the Jewish people and us became a constant. Harry Truman, a warrior from World War I, took up Washington’s charge that the United States was built upon the foundations of freedom erected by the Jewish people, saying:
The fundamental basis of this Nation’s law was given to Moses on the Mount. The fundamental basis of our Bill of Rights comes from the teachings that we get from Exodus, Isaiah, and Saint Paul.
The United States military has never only been a fighting force, although, of course, that is its main mission. After all, every other nation’s military strives to be lethal. The late Colin Powell famously noted that a platoon of American Marines had done more for world peace than all the UN agencies, NGOs, and celebrity telethons put together.
But why, on this most solemn day, should we talk about the 41 million Americans who have taken up arms since the first shots were fired on Lexington Green in 1775? Because those Americans have liberated more villages, cities, and nations than the rest of the armies of the world combined. What has made the United States military this force for good? It is simple — for most of our history, Americans have been taught that they represent a tide of history whose notion of freedom began in Jerusalem 3,000 years ago. That there is a moral code for which the American soldier should stand in the mold of Washington, Truman, and Eisenhower.
Yet the American soldier in 2023 faces a profound inflection point in history. The All-Volunteer Army marks its 50th anniversary this year and yet is seeing the worst recruitment numbers in its history.
The crisis of today’s military is the result of confusion regarding the very meaning of America — its mission in the world and the value of the institutions charged with protecting our basic freedoms. No longer are men and women valued for their collective roles as the shield of the Republic — they are now grouped into sexual and racial categories that often change depending on what the whim of the liberal clerisy happens to be that day. Many are probably asking: why defend a nation whose own leaders do not seem to like it very much? This is a cascading tragedy for the world because it will inevitably fall on America’s shoulders to stare down the theocratic fanatics in Tehran and the hegemonic mandarins in Beijing.
To put it mildly, the military of Marshall, Eisenhower, Nimitz, and Ridgway is almost unrecognizable today.
On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we remember the darkest chapter in human history and continue to seek lessons as Americans. How can we be better? How do we make sure this horror never happens again? The late Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Jonathon Sacks, had it right when he said, “The Jewish people in its very being constitutes a living protest against a world of hatred, violence, and war.” So too, does the presence of the American soldier. We had better correct course, or there will not be anyone left to stop the next tyrant with designs on humanity.
Robert Wilkie served in the Trump Administration as the tenth Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) and as the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. He currently serves as Distinguished Fellow in the Center for American Security at the America First Policy Institute.
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