Today’s post is going to be just a little different from the crime fiction posts I usually include here (although fear not, I’ll mention crime fiction, too). Today I’d like to start with the Hebrew word mitzvah. A mitzvah is a commandment of the Jewish law. More often, it’s used to describe a good work that one does. One of the highest forms of good works – mitzvoth – one can do is a good deed for someone one’s never met and for which one may never be thanked. Today in the U.S., we’re observing Memorial Day, during which we honor the memories of those who’ve died in service to the country. I can think of little that’s a more honorable good deed than sacrificing one’s life for one’s countrymen and women.
While I could write about several different wars we’ve been involved in (and, indeed, still are involved in), I’ll concentrate today on World War II. During that war, over 416,000 American service members lost their lives. Those soldiers came from all over the United States; they came from Macon, Georgia and Tampa, Florida. They came from Chicago, from Long Island and from Springfield, Illinois. They came from Los Angeles and from Carson City, Nevada. They came from Waco, Texas and from St. Charles, Missouri, and numerous other cities and towns. Why? Not because it was fun: anyone in military service who’s ever seen combat knows that war is not fun. It’s dirty, ugly, horrifying, terrifying and loud. It wasn’t because it was easy, either. War is definitely not easy. They came because they chose to serve their country. They left farms and homes, sweethearts and spouses, children and parents. And they never came back.
My home state of Pennsylvania lost more than 26,000 of its men and women to the war. California, where I live now, lost over 17,000 service members. I could go on, of course; each state lost some of its strongest, bravest men and women. They gave their lives for a greater purpose, and for that, I am grateful.
What’s perhaps most astounding is the group of Americans who fought bravely and died honorably for a country that marginalized them. Over a million African-Americans served in the U.S. armed forces during a time when they were not allowed to eat in many restaurants, sit where they chose on buses or visit public parks, museums and libraries when they chose. Thousands of them lost their lives.
And then there were the Navajo “code talkers.” This was a group of young Navajo men who served the U.S. in a unique way. They used their language to help the U.S. devise an unbreakable code for transmitting vital messages in the Pacific Theatre. These courageous people served with distinction a country in which they and their culture and language were largely unknown, and often unwelcome. When they came home, their service was considered so vital and secret that for decades, they were not publicly recognized for it. And yet, they served.
From Hawai’i came the “Mo’ Bettahs,” the members of the 442nd Infantry Regiment. Who were these brave soldiers? They were Japanese-Americans who’d been born in Hawai’i. Many of their families were regarded as possible enemy aliens. And yet, they served – and with great distinction and incredible bravery. The 442nd was the most decorated regiment of World War II, and 93% of its members were said to have been killed, wounded or missing in action. This unbelievable service was given to a country that consigned many Japanese-Americans to internment camps during the war.
These heroic service members gave their lives not for personal glory, but to serve. They didn’t just defend their own families (although they did that, too); they defended people they’d never met. That is a true mitzvah.
It wasn’t just American fighters who made this supreme sacrifice. Men and women all over the world chose service over self. They came from Perth, Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney. They came from Dunedin, Christchurch, Auckland and Hamilton. They came from Tralee and Limerick, from Edinburgh and Aberdeen. They came from Cardiff, Swansea, Newcastle, Bristol, and London. They came from Vancouver, Saskatoon, Québec and Toronto. They came from Leningrad, Kiev and Moscow. They came, too, from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and many other places I haven’t mentioned.
The Royal Air Force (RAF) was responsible for frustrating Hitler’s plan to occupy the U.K. during the 1940 Battle of Britain. Members of the RAF defended the U.K. against Axis air attacks, and 407 lost their lives. The bravery of these fighters was summarized by Winston Churchill, who said:
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Although Memorial Day is typically reserved for honoring the memory of fallen military members, there were many, many people who weren’t officially in the military who also risked, and sometimes gave, their lives. When the people of Denmark discovered that the 7500 Danish Jews were to be deported and sent to concentration camps, they acted with the kind of courage that defies description. At the time, Denmark was occupied, but despite the very real risks, the Danish people refused to accept the plan for these Jews. King Christian X of Denmark made it clear that he was still the leader of a sovereign nation, and the Danes fought back against the Germans through strikes, sabotage and other ways. When the order to deport all Jews came through, Danes everywhere took action immediately to hide and protect their countrymen and women. Even those unlucky Jews who were captured found out later that their countrymen and women had not forgotten them. Those who survived the war and returned to Denmark found that their neighbors had cared for their homes and possessions in their absence.
And then there were the London firefighters. Over 500 courageous men and women fought the terrifying effects of the London blitz. They often went without sleep and food, and were never really sure they’d have a home to come back to after their duty shift. More than 300 of them died. Instead of escaping London, which would have been safer, these brave people stayed to protect others. There is little we could call a greater sacrifice.
Of course, World War II has served as the backdrop for lots of crime fiction. There’ve been spy thrillers like those of Yulian Semyonov and historical mysteries like the work of Sarah Blake. Agatha Christie wove the war through several of her novels, too. In fact, she locked away the manuscripts for Curtain and Sleeping Murder during the war, in case she didn’t survive it. If you’re interested, there are dozens of crime and murder fiction novels that take place during the war or involve characters who’ve seen military action. That’s not surprising since World War II was such a cataclysmic event.
There have, of course, been wars since World War II. Other courageous military members have lost their lives in Korea, in Vietnam, and in the Middle East. They, too, chose to serve their country instead of their own personal agendae. For that, I am also grateful.
I’ll be back again tomorrow with more on crime fiction. The heroes who made my blog possible will not. I thank them and honor their memories. May it comfort their families to know that they are remembered well. There is no greater mitzvah than what they did.
NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Goodnight Saigon.