Don't forget WWII heroes

— John Costa / The Bulletin /

Profoundly moving is the only term to describe three moments in a new book.

They are contained in “The Guns at Last Light,” the third and final volume of Rick Atkinson's marvelous narrative of the U.S. Army — and its Western allies — in World War II.

Inside the larger story of the war from D-day forward, there are remarkable statements on the meaning of freedom and the purpose of the war from the perspective of the common citizen or soldier.

Atkinson, a distinguished former reporter and editor at The Washington Post, is no newcomer to writing about war and the military.

In fact, he is one of the best.

The first volume, in what is now called the liberation trilogy, is “An Army at Dawn,” which described the fight in North Africa. It won a Pulitzer Prize.

The second volume, “The Day of Battle,” focuses on the slog through Sicily and Italy.

But “The Guns at Last Light” is the best, I believe.

It is understandable how emotional to French men and women was the Allied liberation of their country from the Nazis.

How could it not be?

They lived, if that is the right word, under one of the most oppressive and brutalizing occupations in human history. A better description would be they survived.

They watched their countrymen being carted off to concentration camps and their nation denuded of virtually anything valuable.

In a reflection of what liberation meant to him, Atkins cites one Frenchman saying — and I am paraphrasing — liberation is hearing a knock on the front door at 6 a.m., and knowing it's the milkman.

Today, we Americans, particularly after the revelations of IRS targeting, are wound up in debates, as we should be, over an intrusive state, which is a critical subject.

Whether you accept it or not, our government has apologized for it and the Congress is investigating it — all with an aim toward correcting it.

Rest assured that no one in power in Berlin apologized for or tried to correct the excesses of the Gestapo in Paris during the occupation.

The second reflection on freedom and democracy in the book was equally moving.

It occurs during or shortly after the Battle of the Bulge, the very bloody German counter offensive in the winter of 1944.

The Allies were caught off guard and paid for it in casualties. And, even after blunting the offensive, they were in for particularly gruesome fighting as they approached the Rhine River and Germany proper.

Needing front line soldiers, a segregated Army was employing black GIs in the front lines.

They distinguished themselves as soldiers, but one set himself apart with his sense of irony.

Again I'm paraphrasing, but the man said that he was an America soldier fighting to make the world safe for democracy he did not live under, or recognize.

Nearly seven decades later, it is hard to imagine what motivated a black American soldier to fight for freedom he was not assured he would have when he returned home.

But he did, which makes him a great hero.

Finally, Atkins writes about a soldier's reflections after witnessing the atrocities of the Nazi death camps.

This fellow said that knowing about the camps and their atrocities gave a higher meaning — a moral purpose — to the brutality required to end the Third Reich.

He would do it all again, he said, if it meant stopping Hitler and his fellow murderers.

In what are now the sunset years of the generation that fought and won this war, we owe it to them to read about the incredible victory for which they paid so dearly.