The allies defeated the Germans in this climatic battle but with great costs to its troops: 20,000 killed, 40,000 wounded, and 20,000 captured or "missing-in-action." Among these missing-in-action, later determined to be captured, was my mother's young brother, Victor Mace, not yet 20 years old. He survived but barely. Following the "Battle of the Bulge," the war dragged on until May 7, 1945. During those horrific months, Mace who had been captured on January 21st, survived with little food, sole-less boots in the German winter, ragged inadequate clothes, always on the run, hiding with his German captors who retreated at night from the advancing allied forces, dodging the U.S. airplanes during the day as they bombed and strafed anything moving that looked like German troops.
To have survived those conditions of war seems like a miracle. Not all prisoners were as fortunate as Mace. Many died trying to endure the harsh weather, a lack of adequate food and clothing, constantly on the run, and never knowing if and when their captors might kill the prisoners who were making the German retreat even more complicated. To have kept alive the sick, wounded, and ragged prisoners was in its own way an act of mercy by those German troops.
But not all of the captors were that merciful. At 4:30 on the afternoon of December 17, 1944, a premier German SS unit captured and machine-gunned 84 prisoners. This war crime, known as the Malmedy massacre, was one of many atrocities committed against civilians as well as soldiers under the orders of Hitler to display brutality as a show of intimidating force.
But Mace survived. On the morning of Tuesday, May 8, 1945, Mace said he woke up to a strange silence -- no sound of guns or airplanes, no chatter by the German soldiers, no automobiles. He looked around and saw no German troops at all; they had thrown down their weapons and deserted. Then, straining to make sure of what he thought he heard, Mace listened to a far-away human whistling, but coming closer and closer. Joining other U.S. prisoners who had rushed to the fence where they had been crammed inside the night before, they saw striding easily up the road, approaching the camp, a British soldier, whistling as he led his unit up to the gate of the fence which they quickly opened. Mace was liberated; he and others across Europe celebrated VE Day, Victory in Europe, joining hundreds of thousands of people not only in Europe but around the world. On stretchers and cots, canes and crutches, those who had been prisoners and "missing-in-action" began their journey home.
The war does not end here, however, not for Mace, his family, nor his many fellow prisoners of war who suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. His health was fragile, and his vulnerability surrounded him like a light transparent gauze wrap that covered him as a mosquito net would, shielding him but trapping him as a prisoner yet again.
Most often he soldiered through his trauma. But sometimes not, as for example when the family had gathered at my grandparents' for dinner on a lovely summer afternoon, and a low-flying small airplane flew just over the top of the house for no apparent reason. Perhaps it was some "cowboy" crop duster showing off his dare-devil skills. But for whatever reason, the plane dipped down and seemed to buzz the house close enough to get the attention of all of us who stopped eating momentarily, looking at each other in apprehension. Then, in a flash, Mace fell out of his chair and huddled underneath the table -- leaving an image that was seared into my memory forever as a reminder of the psychological ravages of war.
The memory is also for me a testament to the capacity of the human spirit to survive and prevail. Mace lived on into his sixties, rearing three fine kids, my cousins, Roger, Bonnie, and Gail -- now living their lives of which Mace would have been proud -- and celebrating a marriage which survived the trauma and endured for the good times.
I share this remarkable story with you on this Independence Day when we press the pause button in our busy lives in order to reflect on who we are as a people. In my personal reflection on Mace and his battle, I find it remarkable that I cannot remember even one word of resentment or regret for what he suffered on behalf of his country. Nor did I ever hear any vitriolic criticism from other family members. This does not mean that they could not be quite vocal about certain politicians and certain actions taken with which they did not agree. And my comments are not meant to color the family as people who glorified the ways of war and the sacrifices made by those who are touched by war.
They just simply went about their business. And if the "business" called for sacrifice, they rallied from some deep moral core to do what they thought right. And this is the battle for civilization, is it not? You will indulge me, I hope, if I stress this particular point at this particular time.
For we are now living in a strange time. The egotistical drive for "progress," for power, for domination over others and nature itself, for ideological purity, for walls that separate people, for profit at any cost of ethical responsibility, for the dismissal of institutions that provide safe and sane boundaries for our public life, for the display of appearance over substance, and for the apparent lack of regard for a moral center -- these and other manifestations of the "spirit of the times" run counter to the very structure of human existence.
And what is that "structure?" Apparently, if the witness of time and the evolution of the human spirit are to be considered, there is at the core of our existence a human civility that was worded for us 242 years ago:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,
that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. -- That
to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving
their just powers from the consent of the governed. -- That whenever any
Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of
the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying
its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as
to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
(From the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence, in Congress,
July 4, 1776)
And this, as Mace would attest, is a battle for our civilization.