Today at this hour President Bush is attending church services in Washington, D.C. He has asked the news media to announce this fact, and to make known the whereabouts. This is no small act of courage. We know that those who attacked our nation on Tuesday morning were aiming for the two places he was most likely to be. Although they struck with devastating effect, happily they missed the house where every president since Adams has lived, and they missed its current resident.
The President has invited us to join him in prayer at this hour. We are here to pray for those massive numbers who have been killed, and for the much smaller number who have been injured. The toll is awesome to contemplate. It has often been repeated in these last four days that the death toll will be much greater than that at Pearl Harbor. It will likely be a sixth or more of the death toll in the whole of the Vietnam War. It will approach the number killed at the Battle of Gettysburg. Each of the dead leaves behind many grieving loved ones. We have seen them on television in the last 24 hours, suspended between hope and despair. These dead and wounded, and their families, are much more than sufficient reason to pray.
We are also to pray for our country. There is profound reason to do that too. Here at Hillsdale we have had a striking coincidence. At the moment of this travesty we were in the midst of one of our largest conferences. This conference concerned the Second World War, the greatest military conflict in history. Among us were several of the greatest historians of that conflict, and a number of people who fought in it with particular bravery.
A theme began to emerge on Sunday night when the great and famous historian Stephen Ambrose argued that the twenty-first century will be the greatest and most peaceful in history because of the victory won by the “greatest generation.” Several of the veterans of the war picked up this theme. Though they were not so sanguine as Professor Ambrose, they expressed the hope that no one would have to undergo what they themselves endured in the sky above Guadalcanal, crouched behind a sand dune at Omaha Beach, crawling among the sharp rocks at Iwo Jima.
On Wednesday morning, down at Hillsdale Academy, we heard three speeches by veterans. One was given by Major General Robert Ploger. On the morning of June 6, 1944, he was a 29-year-old Lieutenant Colonel. He came ashore on Omaha Beach with the job of blowing up a wall. The explosives arrived some hours after he did, and so he spent a morning under fire, being wounded, and waiting. His account of that fighting was methodical and riveting.
After the speeches that morning, we went up to the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority house with these veterans to have lunch. It was a lovely atmosphere, and we are grateful to the Kappas for their hospitality.
In the middle of the lunch, Cliff Witte, himself a combat veteran and a brave man, came to me. He said that General Ploger had received word the previous evening that his son and daughter-in-law had been killed on the airplane that was hijacked and flown into the Pentagon. The couple had been married only a few days before, and were en route to Hawaii for their honeymoon. General Ploger had spent a sleepless night, unable to travel, unwilling to tell. He had got up the next morning and had done his duty without complaint. I had the hard job of offering condolences at his loss on behalf of the College. When I did so, he broke down immediately.
What must he have been thinking? It is a compound sort of tragedy. We can tell from the statements of the veterans who were here, and from the historians who are close to them, how they take their consolation. None of them came here to exult in his own glory. Their speeches typically ended with statements like “War is hell” and “I remember so well those who died.” Then they would say that they fought in the hope that such fighting would not again be needed. Having instructed the world with great sacrifice in the awfulness of war, perhaps the world would find a better way. Who can blame Professor Ambrose for harboring that same hope? And then, while these veterans were all here, our country was attacked and one of them lost a son and a daughter-in-law on the way to their honeymoon. It is a traditional sentiment from many of the greatest Americans, from George Washington to Alexander Hamilton to Abraham Lincoln, that America is a kind of experiment, an experiment to be conducted by every generation. It seems that this has not changed.
Benjamin Netanyahu, who lost a brother to terrorists during Israel’s bold and courageous Entebbe rescue mission in 1976, stated a truth on television yesterday that we must all now come to face. He lives in a country where such truths are well known. He said that Tuesday’s attack is not the worst that can be done. He said that some later attack could be nuclear or, I might add, chemical or biological.
The Taliban, who are likely the attackers here, as they have been before, are sheltered by Afghanistan, a very hard place to fight, and by Pakistan, a nuclear power, and by Iran, which has an army larger if less capable than our own. It required six months to transfer the forces to Kuwait that ultimately defeated Iraq’s Republican Guard in the Persian Gulf War. These forces were being transferred to a place where they were welcome, and even then those in the Pentagon thought the transfer had been accomplished in a remarkably short time. The heavy division that led the charge north into Iraq has since been disbanded. Its soldiers are now civilians. Its tanks are in mothballs. Given these facts, it will not be easy to confront the present danger. We must summon our courage.
Those who have launched this attack believe that we Americans are weak and cowardly materialists. It is important to note that these attackers are not Arabs or Muslims. Arabs and Muslims are as a group no more capable of such atrocity than anyone else. These are particular people, inflamed by hate, driven by demented ambition. They believe that they can use the tools of modern science to destroy the material implements that, they believe, are the sole source of our pleasures and our safety. We know now beyond doubt that they are very ruthless.
This is not the first time that such people as this have formed a mistaken impression of us. It is easy to mistake the love of freedom for lack of virtue. It is easy to mistake the love of peace for cowardice. But these are mistakes, and we now have before us the hard job of proving so once again.
There was an ultimate comfort enjoyed by those who fought the Second World War. It came from two sources. It came from the knowledge that we have the means of our own survival in our own hands, if we have the courage to use them. It came more profoundly from the knowledge that in the fullness of time, right makes might. God is on the side of those who serve Him in faith and humility.
In a lovely article in today’s Wall Street Journal, Melanie Kirkpatrick explains what happened in New York City on Tuesday. The people flocked to help, to the hospitals, to the Red Cross centers, to the soup kitchens. And also they flocked to the churches. Those who attacked that great city think of it as a monument to money. It is in fact a place where churches, some of the oldest and most beautiful in the world, abound on nearly every block. In New York, one can always find a place to pray. They are praying there now.
Let us join them. Let us pray for faith and the courage that comes from it. Let us take increased devotion from these honored dead and from their predecessors, who gave the last full measure of devotion. Let us take courage from this devotion. God is good, and He will be our shield.