Wednesday, June 02, 2004

A Lesson from Ike

Commemorations of the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion at Normandy have drawn my mind to thoughts of its leader, Dwight Eisenhower. Ike, as he was called, led the Allies in the greatest amphibious military landing in history and in the subsequent successful campaign to liberate Europe from Nazi tyranny.

Shakespeare once observed that some have greatness thrust upon them and that was certainly true of Eisenhower. Through a long military career, he served capably. But by the time he’d reached his early fifties, it appeared that Eisenhower’s chances to achieve anything of note as a soldier were nil. It turned out though, that through his work under such difficult personalities as Douglas MacArthur and through personal development, Ike had become uniquely suited for commanding and working with an international fighting force brought together to defeat Hitler.

Eisenhower’s life demonstrates that it’s foolish to underestimate either the achievements or potential in others. Each human being, under the right circumstances, with affirmation and opportunity, is capable of being more and doing more than even they may realize. Every person is a precious creation of God.

This is something that Eisenhower himself seemed to know. In his book, At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends, Eisenhower recounts an incident that occurred when he was an upperclassman at West Point, the US Military Academy. It was the custom in those days for the first year students—Plebes—to be “hazed” or “crawled,” treated with disrespect by the other cadets. One day, Eisenhower recounts, a Plebe, scurrying to obey orders given to him by another upperclassman, literally ran into Eisenhower. The Plebe fell to the ground. Eisenhower writes that he used “all the sarcasm and scorn I could muster...,” and asked the guy what he had done before coming to the Point. “You look like a barber,” he told the cowering Plebe.

“He stood up,” Eisenhower writes, [and], “said softly, ‘I was a barber, sir.’ I didn’t have sense to apologize to him on the spot...I just turned my head and went to my tent where my roommate, P.A. Hodgson, was sitting. I looked at him and said, ‘P.A., I’m never going to crawl another Plebe as long as I live...I’ve just done something that was stupid and unforgivable. I managed to make a man ashamed of the work he did to earn a living.”

By all accounts, Eisenhower was as good as the vow he made that day. Thirty years later, while serving as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, he was known for the respect and reverence he showed for the lives of all under his command. Unlike other generals, when Eisenhower met with GIs, the citizen soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen who put their lives on the line in freedom’s defense, he always asked about their past lives and honored the civilian work to which he hoped they could return. His battle plans always strove to minimize the loss of life.

He extended this same consideration and respect to both the vanquished and to the victims of war. Eisenhower’s moving and shocked post-war accounts were among the first in-depth reports the world received about the Holocaust. To one who saw the value and potential in people, the murder of six-million Jews was profoundly disturbing.

I bring all this up because, it seems to me that we live in a crass time in which the dignity and potential of people are constantly demeaned. “Reality” TV shows derive much of their “entertainment value” and popularity from showing people being subjected to insult, unkindness, and condescension. We seem to forget that every human being is created, quoting a mysterious phrase appearing in Genesis in the Old Testament, “in the image of God.” Looking back sixty years later, at D-Day and the man who planned it, that phrase, denoting the dignity and potential of every human life, is a good thing to remember.

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