Angels Wearing Uniforms

When American soldiers crashed through the main gate of the Nazi death camp in which she and tens of thousands of others were imprisoned, she looked at them and saw angels, an elderly Jewish woman recalled earlier this year, upon meeting one of the very men who had rescued her.

This Memorial Day weekend, we pay tribute to the men and women who have perished while serving us in uniform. On Veterans Day, we honor those still among us.

We praise with terms such as “saving the world for democracy” and “defending liberty.” Those are fine generalities, and true as far as they go.

But for more than two centuries, we Americans — and perhaps billions of other people — have had very specific reasons to view those in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard as angels.

Survivors of the World War II death camps understand. Many of them, perhaps most, would have perished had it not been for those GI angels. Hundreds were dying every day as American troops raced toward the camps.

And what if, by some chance, our nation had not entered the war when it did? In all likelihood, millions more would have died at the hands of Hitler’s minions.

There is not room in this space for even one line about each of the concrete humanitarian deeds Americans in uniform have accomplished. Consider just a few:

n Liberty meant very specific things to the Continental soldiers and sailors who founded our nation. To give just one example, did you know that before the Revolutionary War, many colonists were required to pay “tithes” to the Church of England? Were you aware that had the internet existed then, the British government could have shut down any website or other user with which it was displeased? Those powers went away, except for rare exceptions, when the United States came into being.

n How many years, perhaps even decades, would have passed before enslaved African-Americans were emancipated, had Union soldiers not continued risking and often losing their lives after then-President Abraham Lincoln made it clear in 1863 that freedom for all was a war aim?

n South Koreans are among the most prosperous people in the world. Had many Americans — and soldiers from other countries — not shed blood to turn back the invasion in 1950, things might be quite different now.

n Under Japanese occupation in the late 1930s and until 1945, the Chinese people were treated, quite literally, as sub-humans. That could have continued for many years, but for the sacrifices of Americans in uniform. One estimate of the casualties in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that 115,000 Japanese were killed and another 94,000 were injured. Estimates of the number of Chinese slaughtered in the 1937 massacre at Nanking start at 40,000 and go up to 300,000.

Have a tiny handful of Americans in uniform sometimes behaved shamefully? Yes. What would be the percentage? One — or less?

What of the vast majority, then? They have been more than “defenders of liberty.”

Many, many times, they have been angels.

Myer can be reached at:



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