On May 11, 1945, two inexpensive Japanese planes carrying a single bomb each and flown by inexperienced kamikaze pilots dove into the mighty U.S.S. Bunker Hill, one of our greatest aircraft carriers, killing or wounding more than 700 naval men and permanently crippling one of our most important weapons. Overall, kamikazes damaged 288 ships during World War II, including 36 carriers (16 of them major carriers), sinking 34 ships of all kinds, and putting many others, like the Bunker Hill, out of the war for good.
Americans regarded use of suicide bombers abhorrent in the extreme and many Japanese were likewise appalled, but there can be no question it was effective. By the time Japan embraced the tactic it was too late to turn the tide of the war but it still made a lasting impression. We expect our soldiers to be brave but assume they hope and pray to survive so they can return home to their loved ones. We are at a loss to understand the mentality of men who are actually eager to sacrifice their lives on the battlefield.
But that is what we are up against again today in our seemingly endless struggle against Islamic fanatics in the Middle East and elsewhere. These are people who have rejected the basic values of democratic society altogether, treasuring neither life nor freedom. They aspire to impose their barbaric ideology on the entire world and are willing to sacrifice their lives to make it happen. Rarely in history has any society been confronted with such unmitigated evil.
We have great weapons of war at our disposal – advanced warplanes, aircraft carriers, satellites, smart bombs, drones, even nuclear weapons – just as we had the advantage in material against the Japanese. But our dreadful experience with the kamikazes taught us all of that does not negate the inherent advantage of fanatics willing to sacrifice their lives. On some days in the Middle East, suicide bombers stroll into public places and wreak fearful carnage, and it may eventually be happening here if we are not vigilant
Against that prospect, we have a thin khaki line of brave American men and women who risk their lives daily to protect our country. Like those dauntless sailors and airmen on the U.S.S. Bunker Hill, they put themselves in harm’s way so we can live normal lives secure in our homes and protective of our cherished freedoms. Many of these heroes do not come home alive, and many others come maimed physically and psychologically.
Our military people today are no less brave and committed than the heroes of WWII, but they are fewer in number. We rely on a volunteer force that is by historical standards quite small. Less than 1 percent of our population is actively engaged in its defense. Millions of Americans whose lives and security depends on this small group cannot name one individual relative or friend in active service. I have heard senior officers say the nation is not at war; the Army is at war. But our nation truly is at war and every day it comes closer to our shores.
If we lack the political will to expand our military forces with some form of compulsory service, it is all the more imperative that we become more active on behalf of the tiny minority that volunteers who serve – and especially on behalf of those who pay the price. Unfortunately, our government is not nearly as efficient supporting our wounded warriors as it is providing them with deadly weapons. The Veterans Administration has new leadership today, but the overall organization is dysfunctional and in any event lacks the resources it needs to provide these deserving (mostly young) people with the assistance they need and deserve.
I am hopeful that growing recognition of the deep-seated problems at the VA will lead to substantive reforms and more resources. Until that day, groups such as mine work to fill the void, providing direct financial support to wounded veterans awaiting adjudication of their claims, providing living quarters for homeless veterans, and managing a variety of programs to help victims of post-traumatic stress disorder resume productive lives in society.
There is a growing awareness among our citizens of the tremendous burden borne by our tiny defense forces and the fearsome price they pay defending our values and way of life. This Veterans Day affords us an excellent opportunity to recognize their sacrifice and commit to helping those who have borne the heat of the battle on behalf of the great majority of us.
David W. Walker is President and CEO of the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes.