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What Americans owe to those who serve

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
  • Bob Greene: Sometimes people make light of World War II; that's a mistake
  • He says there was nothing funny about the battle a generation faced
  • Lives were disrupted, hundreds of thousands died or were injured, he says
  • He says American liberties depend on willingness of troops to fight

Editor's Note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose new book is "Late Edition: A Love Story."

(CNN) -- The woman's Halloween costume featured a Third Reich motif.

This was last weekend in a sprawling bar-and-restaurant complex near U.S. 41 on the west coast of Florida. I had made the miscalculation of stopping by in pursuit of a quiet cheeseburger, not realizing that adults in trick-or-treat costumes were making the rounds on this sultry evening.

The woman (or the costume shop from where she had purchased her uniform) at least had the good sense to omit the actual swastikas, but that was the only bit of subtlety. The Heinrich Himmler high-fronted military cap, the boots, the swagger stick she kept slapping against her palm. . .some of the customers, playing along, did little comic goose steps as they passed her.

I looked up from my newspaper and tried to surmise if anyone was going to be offended enough by this odious display to leave. She beat them to it; she and her friends made a few quick passes through the aisles of the place, then returned to the night, ready to continue their revelry elsewhere.

Halloween in the United States is an increasingly odd holiday, no longer child's play, but on this evening I was thinking about another holiday, this one official, that is coming up this week: Veterans Day.

And, having unexpectedly encountered the woman in her getup, I found myself wondering what, six and seven decades ago, they would have made of it: what the 16 million Americans who served in the armed forces during World War II, who were sent across the ocean to defeat a brutal enemy, would have thought about this scene.

They're old men now, the soldiers who remain; many are frail and in ill health. It can be easy for us to forget that, when they were uprooted from their daily lives in the 1940s, no one knew what the history books would eventually say. No one knew the outcome. They were little more than kids, many of them; they were in effect told by our country:

Are you in school? You'll have to leave it. Have a new wife? You'll have to say goodbye to her. Working at a job you like? Tell your boss that you have to quit.

We need you to go halfway across the world, because we need you to save the world.

And they did it. Some 292,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines were killed in battle during World War II; another 114,000 died from noncombat causes. Some 671,000 U.S. troops were injured, many of them grievously.

The uniforms they put on were not Halloween getups; neither were the uniforms of the enemies they confronted across the oceans. On their way to fight the war, it's a pretty fair guess that they were scared and lonely. They understood that there was no guarantee they would ever be coming home.

Each November we are asked to pause and honor them, which is, or should be, an honor in itself. After the events of the last week at Fort Hood in Texas, with their reminder of the sacrifices that the men and women of the military make for us, Veterans Day will hold special meaning this year.

This November also marks the second anniversary of the death, at age 92, of my friend Paul Tibbets, who I got to know extraordinarily well during the last years of his life. I'd like to say a few words about him here.

At the age of 29, out of all the men and women in the U.S. military, he was selected for a task of almost unfathomable importance. He was told to recruit, organize, supervise and command a group of soldiers and airmen who were to train in absolute secrecy. If he succeeded, he was told, then the war could be won.

Someone had started a terrible fight; he was asked to finish it.

He did. He got his unit ready. And on an August day in 1945, he flew a B-29 he had named for his mother, Enola Gay, to Japan, where he and his crew dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It was the single most violent act in the history of mankind, and he carried it out without flinching because he believed, in the deepest part of his heart, one thing above all others:

He could end the long war. He could stop the killing. All of the American soldiers who were on their way to the shores of Japan for a land invasion could turn around and go home, could raise families, could live again in a world at peace.

He understood the controversy, and the anger, with which his mission would be received by some. He understood that there were people who would forever hate him. He and I talked about it many times before he died. After the war, he told me, President Harry Truman asked him if people were saying unpleasant things to him because of the bomb. Paul Tibbets told the president that, yes, some people indeed were.

And Truman said:

"You tell them that if they have anything to say, they should call me. I'm the one who sent you."

So it's November again. Veterans Day is upon us.

There is a quotation variously attributed to Winston Churchill or George Orwell. Regardless of our individual politics, regardless of our beliefs about the rightness or wrongness of a particular war, the words are worth reflecting upon anew this week:

"We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm."

And so, to all who have served us, then, now, and in the future, a word of somber thanks, from those of us here at home.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.