Answering the call
To Americans, the image of green lawns spanned with rows of white crosses, some adorned with flags or flowers, is sacred. Each cross bears the name of the serviceman or woman buried below, representatives of this nation’s willingness to take up the fight when called.
Many more lie in American soil abroad, like those in the Normandy American Cemetery, overlooking the same beaches they stormed 75 years ago.
Today, the world looks very different than it did in the wake of World War II. While Fredericksburg has well retained its small-town reverence for history and the military, the interconnectedness of the world through technology like social media has brought national discourse to its doorstep.
Many shake their heads at younger generations, fearing they’ve lost the valor and respect for service and sacrifice so well embodied by The Greatest Generation and those who have fought for America since.
But one local voice doesn’t think that’s the case. Gen. Michael W. Hagee graduated from Fredericksburg High School in 1963 and from the Naval Academy in 1968, and served as the 33rd Commandant of the Marine Corps from 2003-2006.
He believes that young Americans have always risen to the challenge of facing threats against freedom.
“(The willingness to serve) actually goes back, in my opinion, to the Revolutionary War,” Hagee said, “and we have had young men and women step forward to serve the country and actually believe in something larger than themselves.”
According to Hagee, the attitude of younger generations is not a new concern, as these same misgivings echoed among adults in the dawn of World War II and Vietnam.
“When I read literature and studies that were done in the 1920s and ’30s,” Hagee said, “you know what the adults argued? Kids are going to hell in a handbasket. They are terrible. It was exactly the same thing that the adults were saying about the kids in the ’90s or the ’60s. So, I would urge individuals who argue that, go back and read history because we have something unique here. And I think the young people get it.”
Young people today grew up in a world where technology and instant communication has influenced nearly every aspect of their lives. They’ve also grown up in a world following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — an event that ushered in a new age of warfare and military challenges.
For most of history, conventional warfare between well-defined states has been the dominant form of human conflict. Today, the United States and its allies still struggle to effectively win the war on terror. According to Hagee, a world that saw WWII end with “unconditional surrender” of nations now faces an entirely changed environment.
“In my judgment, (unconditional surrender) will never occur again,” Hagee said. “One has to be careful of saying never, but I think it’ll always be sort of a messy agreement at the end.”
Fighting a new beast requires new tactics. As technology advances, tools other than guns and ships are becoming increasingly valuable in the government’s arsenal. Young people’s lives might be enveloped in social media, but their access to cultures and ideas from across the globe through their device is one of their greatest strengths. According to Hagee, they are “more worldly and better informed,” than those of previous generations.
Thirty-three years before heading the Marine Corps in the Middle East, the young officer commanded a platoon in Vietnam, and witnessed first-hand how, regardless of powerful weapons and strategy, a military without understanding of the culture around it can be detrimental to civilian lives.
“The largest problem I had in Vietnam was not the tactics — that’s relatively straightforward and easy,” Hagee said. “It was convincing those Marines, those young Americans, that the Vietnamese were people, too … but, similar to Iraq and Afghanistan, you could not tell who the good people were and who the bad people were. And so pretty soon, if you didn’t have strong leadership, you’d have ... the My Lai Incident, where Lt. Calley and his platoon attempted to wipe out that particular village.”
As war in the Middle East continues, the world is increasingly questioning the relevance of the military as a tool in spreading American values to war-torn regions. Hagee believes that the government must rely more on promoting education, commerce and humanitarianism rather than flex its military muscle to prop up governments abroad.
“National security should be led by the State Department and the other elements of national power,” Hagee said. “We have the best military in the world without a doubt, probably the best military the world has ever seen, and we have a tendency to want to use it if there’s a problem. Can the military come in and provide a secure environment in Iraq or Afghanistan to allow those people to build their city or their state or their country? Yes, we can. Should we be designing their country? No.”
Decide on their own
Following the second World War, the U.S. emerged as the beacon of democracy and sought to instill its ideals globally, including in regions that have not taken kindly to American political structures.
The world is changing, however, and Hagee believes leadership must adjust to a mindset that the people in other countries must make their own decisions.
“I think, at least in the military today,” he said, “the young guys and gals who are providing that leadership, they’re the right ones.”
Still, this change in perception is difficult for Americans who define victory in post-World War II terms, where the American system should triumph in any context.
“We should not define victory that way,” Hagee said. “And victory, in my opinion, should not be that Iraq or Afghanistan, Yemen — you name the country — is going to look like us. Because actually, they don’t want to look like us. They don’t want to be us. They like some of the things they see, but their culture, their history, their outlook and their religion just don’t see it that way.”
Learning how to effectively convey American interests while understanding how other cultures want to govern themselves can establish more stability in the future, even if other countries choose to operate differently.
“The point being is that we should say ‘it’s going to be up to you,’” Hagee said. “And if [other countries] want to have Sharia law … they have to decide that, not us. We may disagree with it, but they have got to decide that.”
According to Hagee, adapting to the changing climate of warfare and supporting other nations in the most effective way according to their culture, all without overstepping boundaries, does not mean America’s diplomats or military should concede ensuring American ideals.
“We have to listen to [other nations],” the general said, “but we can’t transgress on what we believe is right. It comes back to our values: life, respect, telling the truth, rule of law. I think that’s all we can ask.”
Answering the call
While America is learning how to adjust its foreign policy and use of its military against evolving threats, the strength of will and character of its young people, like the generations before them, remain ever constant.
“They’re really quite proud that they are carrying on the traditions and performance of my father … and what (The Greatest Generation) did during World War II,” Hagee said. “So, when there is a true, in my words, existential threat to us, then my sense is that, properly led, the American people — especially the youth — will stand up.”
While some retreat back into history to escape the noise of today, the young men and women currently serving in the military use history to propel them forward. They remember those who served before them — those who lived to see the freedom wrought by their valor and sacrifice, and those who lie forever beneath a white cross in the United States or across the sea.
In one of these cemeteries abroad, a statue called “Spirit of American Youth” stands tall over 9,388 of these crosses in Normandy American Cemetery. It depicts a young man rising from the waves, arms stretched above to the heavens, and it serves as a reminder that this nation is in good hands as the young take up the cause of the old.