Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

A World War II Marine looks back and wonders: Where’s the America of sharing?

I am now 91 years of age and it has been 70 long, wide years since I returned home on Christmas Eve, 1945.

Asan Beach, Guam

Tom note: I recently ran a “War Dog of the Week” showing a World War II Marine holding a dog. The son of that Marine sent me a note saying that the Marine in question was his dad, that his dad was still alive, and what’s more, he was a reader of Best Defense. I asked the dad if he would be interested in writing something for the blog. This is what the dad sent back. 

By Larry Kirby

Tom note: I recently ran a “War Dog of the Week” showing a World War II Marine holding a dog. The son of that Marine sent me a note saying that the Marine in question was his dad, that his dad was still alive, and what’s more, he was a reader of Best Defense. I asked the dad if he would be interested in writing something for the blog. This is what the dad sent back. 

By Larry Kirby
Best Defense guest columnist

I am now 91 years of age and it has been 70 long, wide years since I returned home on Christmas Eve, 1945. My family was unaware that I was even in the U.S. because I did not want them to know I had spent a month in a Naval hospital before being discharged. My triumphant return was a Norman Rockwell painting; the cab stopped across the street, I tossed my seabag over my shoulder and walked across the street. A light snow was falling, I pressed the doorbell, the door opened, and there was my mom and dad, my brother and my sisters and a few family friends. I had not seen my family since June of 1942, 3 1/2 years earlier.

I was home, I was still alive, I was the luckiest guy on the planet.

As the title of Sebastian Bae’s piece says, war is only romantic if you have never been in one. I have seen close friends killed, I have held young boys in my arms as they died. I have taken the lives of other human beings. I have known fear so intense as to drive good men insane.

Looking back it seems to me that we who were raised in the great Depression were partially trained for life in the military. That existence of abject poverty, living in the run-down buildings of a slum or ghetto and being part of a community in which everyone was penniless. Where I lived, in Brookline, Massachusetts, outside Boston, we were saved by a culture wherein everyone in that ghetto would, without hesitation, help any other person in the neighborhood. Only through mutual assistance was there a chance of our continued existence.

My family of seven lived in a three-decker house with no bathrooms and just one toilet on the first floor that served all three families. We survived because families helped each other. If anyone had a few extra potatoes or apples they were given to the family that had the least. That common bond of misery kept us all equal and helped each of to exist. The fact that everyone was poor made us all equal. This commonality brought us closer together. Each of us knew the desperation, the fear, the uncertainty of life and of continued existence.

The basis of success for my Marine Corps was the mantra of “you are now a Marine. You are as good as, but never better than, every other Marine” “Take care of your mates, do your job and never leave a fellow Marine behind.” No matter how important or how mundane your job, from the Commandant to the last private in the last rank, it is incumbent on you to do that job the best you can because this is the only way any of us will survive. Just as in the slums, we did our best and helped each other not just because it was the right thing to do but because it was the only way each one of us had a chance of continuing on.

At war’s end I returned home and started college. It was assumed that when I graduated, got married and began a career, I would follow a normal, routine passage through life into old age. We would have children, buy a house in the suburbs and live out a normal happy life. I would go to work each day, mother would stay home to care of the children and prepare the meals. At the age of 65 we would retire, apply for social security and with my monthly pension check we would send the children to college and as they started there own careers and we would grow old comfortably.

This concept held firm until the 1970s, when the cost of living began to overtake the full-time income earner and the typical family now required two breadwinners to make ends meet. Thus began the era of working parents and the ensuing societal problems of juvenile delinquency, drugs, crime, homelessness and despair. Now, well into the 21st century it is becoming apparent that even the two-income family cannot survive.

It is all in the stats, the numbers. The Federal government boasts a 6 percent unemployment rate but when we include those who have stopped job hunting and that great mass of Americans who are underemployed the true jobless rate rises to over 23 percent.

Due to advancements in technology, fewer workers are needed to provide goods and services. In the present US economy, there are twice as many people in the working-age population as there are full-time jobs and half of those jobs pay less than $35k a year. In today’s economy somewhere around 25 percent of the working population is living in relative comfort, and that percentage is steadily decreasing. As wages stagnate, the cost of living continues to rise. And that wage-earning 25 percent is asked to provide the dollars for the millions living on Social security.

Many are struggling to get by. On the surface, they do our best to give off the illusion of prosperity, to keep up appearances, which drives them further into debt. They are trapped in a vicious cycle; they toil in “quiet desperation.” They are stressed out just trying to make ends meet. Most of them live in deep denial and fear.

In the United States today, there is at least $100 trillion in wealth. $100 trillion is an unprecedented amount. The average person cannot even begin to comprehend such astonishing wealth. It is too far removed from historical precedent and beyond any personal experience.

In a time of unprecedented wealth, we now have an all-time record-breaking number of people living in poverty. It has been accurately reported that in the last decade while overall wealth has grown by 60 percent, the number of homeless children has also grown by 60 percent, and the number of children on food stamps has increased by 70 percent. In a time of unprecedented wealth we now have full-time workers who need food stamps to survive, and conditions are getting more severe, the trends are getting worse.

Instead of advancements in technology, increased productivity and increased wealth being a very good thing for overall society, the richest 0.01 percent of the population has systematically taken that increase in wealth for themselves, leaving tens of millions to live a life absent economic security and freedom.

When the subject of overall wealth is discussed, our conditioned mental reflexes have built in explanations or naïve acceptance– this is not about criticizing people just because they are rich. If you work hard, pile up a ton of money and make people’s lives better, thank you. Good luck and God bless you. The problem, the breakdown, is with people who gain personal wealth by engaging in corrupt and destructive behavior; people who enrich themselves while ignoring others; and they are each personally guilty because they have used their wealth to deliberately rig the economic and political system against the full-time wage earner.

It did not have to be this way. If the minimum wage had kept pace with overall income growth since 1965, the minimum wage would now be $22 an hour, and a full-time minimum wage worker would earn $45k a year. However, only 15 percent of the current population has an annual income higher than $45k. In other words, only 15 percent of the population currently has an annual income higher than a minimum wage worker had in 1965. That shows you how unbalanced the rate of wealth and income has become.

Back in my time as a Marine in World War II we fought for a country and we were guided by principle and concern for each other. As I grow old all the events of those few years spent as a combat Marine crowd my remembrance. I remember boys seeking their fill of life and adventure. I recall their courage and sacrifice. I keep a personal tally of the precious price they paid for their noble dreams of glory. Their sense of duty and willingness to die for beliefs carried the day of yesteryear.

Yet, today I feel that we, as a nation, have chosen to disregard the actions of those courageous young boys. We have failed to recognize and honor the benefaction of their victory. The country I live in today is foreign; it is so oblivious of my disappointment.

After the war, Larry Kirby attended Northeastern University and its law school, and then spent a career in Management Information Systems. He has lived in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, for several decades.

Photo credit: Larry Kirby

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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