The Gathering of Mustangs and Legends, held at the end of September at Columbus, Ohio, was an inspiring lesson in history and patriotism.
I have been telling everyone who would stand still long enough that it was certainly the best-organized, most thrilling, most moving air show I’ve attended in some 60 years of attending them.
It brought together the largest gathering of P-51 Mustangs since World War II and an impressive number of the remaining pilots who flew them. The idea was to honor that war’s veterans, and honor them it did, not only through its entertainment programs but through the large and very respectful audience it attracted, some 200,000 people over three days. As it was for many of the people in attendance, the men and women being honored were my heroes when I was growing up and they remain so today.
A few weeks earlier I had attended the Naval Academy funeral of Marine Maj. Douglas Zembiec, “The Lion of Fallujah,” who died in May while leading a raid on terrorist forces in Baghdad. Doug Zembiec and his men cared a lot about how they lived and how they helped others to live. The group inside the targeted house cared only how it died, which is typical of fanatics.
It seems unlikely that many terrorists, if any, attended whatever sort of funeral terrorists are given. More than 1,000 mourners, from flag officers to privates, packed the Naval Academy chapel for Zembiec’s memorial service. I thought of him each day at the Gathering of Mustangs when, during each Heritage Flight, Dwayne O’Brien’s powerful song of freedom, “We Remember,” was played, its stirring words appealing mightily to the crowd, many of whom were veterans. Quoting the words of Father Dennis Edward O’Brien, USMC, the voice over the loudspeakers reminded us:
“It’s the soldier, not the reporter, who gives you the freedom of the press.
It’s the soldier, not the poet, who gives you the freedom of speech.
It’s the soldier, not the campus organizer, who allows you to demonstrate.
It’s the soldier, not the preacher, who gives you freedom of religion.
It’s the soldier, not the lawyer, who gives you the right to a fair trial.
It’s the soldier, not the politician, who gives you the right to vote.
It’s the soldier who salutes the flag, serves the flag, and whose coffin is draped with the flag, who allows the protester to burn the flag.”
As this is being written, shortly before Veterans Day, it seems a good time to pause and give some quiet thought to those words.
We often are told that our nation’s most precious resource is its children. Certainly, when I look at my daughters and grandchildren I think of them as my own most precious assets. However, when we are at war – and, believe me, we are in a very serious war with Muslim fundamentalism – our greatest asset is those guardians of freedom of whom Chaplain O’Brien wrote.
Most Americans today seem to get their ideas of war from the movies and television. I will tell you from experience that Hollywood has no idea what war is like. The closest it has come to reality is “We Were Soldiers.” You can forget about reality in “Saving Private Ryan.” Even the premise is phony. War is not a special-effects extravaganza.
The war on terror is being fought by less than 30% of the military and less than half of 1% of Americans as a whole. A sharp divergence of attitudes toward war has emerged as a result.
Our professional warriors, who risk their lives, believe the nation must commit to a long-term fight. Support among civilians, including our national leaders, is waning with time and the poisonous political invective coming from Washington.
The divergence itself isn’t new. Those who fight our enemies up close always have been most heavily invested in “the cause.” What’s different today is that the people no longer are close to our military men and women. Most Americans have never met a Gold Star family, let alone shaken hands with a warrior. Even so, in a recent Gallup Poll on America’s most trusted institutions, the military ranked highest at 69% while Congress ranked last with a bleak 14% confidence rating. If Gallup had taken a poll at the Gathering of Mustangs I think confidence in the military would have been mighty close to 100%, which is encouraging to those of us living close to the outpourings from Washington, D.C.
To those who are embittered and weak of will about the war on terrorism I say that, like those 200,000 people at the Gathering of Mustangs, we should take great pride that we still produce men such as Doug Zembiec. They are little different from the World War II “Legends” with whom I spoke at the Gathering; soft-spoken, modest men who do not make much of their heroism, despite such evidence of it as the 36 Oak Leaf Clusters added to Clyde East’s Air Medal – the highest number of repeat combat medal awards known.
Triple-ace Bud Anderson pointed out that, during World War II, the Eighth Air Force suffered more casualties than the entire Marine Corps. Bill Overstreet agreed. “A lot of heroes did not come back,” he said. “Honor them, too.”
The best way to honor them, in my opinion, is to stop playing a political game of chicken with those who fight the war against terrorism and develop a bipartisan course of action based on reality, before the terrorists hit us again at home.
When that happens, finger-pointing simply won’t do.
Thomas F. Norton is GAN’s Senior Editor