Burke: WWII general knew how to prove regard for his dead

Would that Gen. Lucian Truscott Jr. could show Trump how to speak of those who have died in ‘his’ war.

By Tom Burke / Herald columnist

Who was Lucian Truscott Jr., you ask? Most will probably not recognize the name unless knowledgeable about American military history. Those who do, however, will identify him as an outstanding European theater World War II general who suffered, in terms of popular recognition, three “flaws:”

• He was a superior fighting general, but not a big-name diplomat or grand strategist, as was Dwight Eisenhower.

• He was dedicated to his men and not publicity, forbidding his name to be used in news about his troops’ successes; instead, identifying the noteworthy unit or soldier rather than take personal credit.

• George C. Scott did not play him in a movie.

And aside from his truly unparalleled combat record, he did something singular in the annals of military history: He turned his back on a bunch of army brass and Congressional bigwigs to give a speech.

On Memorial Day, 1945, at the American military cemetery in Nettuno, Italy, he talked not to the living but turned away from the assembled dignitaries and spoke directly to the hundreds of scattered, make-shift markers in that muddy, raw-earth field where the men who sacrificed their lives for our freedom were buried.

No record of his exact words is known.

But the famous WWII cartoonist and Pulitzer-prize winner Bill Mauldin, who created the eternal U.S. soldiers, Willie and Joe, described the day:

“Truscott,” Mauldin said, “was someone special.” The general had swallowed carbolic acid as a child, which gave his voice a gravelly baritone that, said Mauldin, “made strong men quail.”

“The general’s remarks were brief and extemporaneous,” the artist wrote. “He apologized to the dead men for their presence here. He said everybody tells leaders it is not their fault that men get killed in war, but that every leader knows in his heart this is not altogether true.”

His rough voice rising over the graves, Truscott said he hoped anyone interred there through any mistake of his would forgive him, but knew this was asking a lot. He said he would not speak of “glorious dead” because he didn’t see any glory in getting killed in your late teens or early 20s. He promised that if he ever ran into anybody, especially old men, who thought death in battle glorious, he would straighten them out; it was the least he could do.”

“It was the most moving gesture I ever saw,” Mauldin recalled later. “It came from a hard-boiled man who was incapable of planned dramatics.”

There are two lessons here.

The first is obvious. It’s nice to say, “Thank you for your service.” It’s the least we can do.

But it is far better to actually show it: By fully funding the Veterans Administration and putting competent people in charge, so every veteran gets the dead-cert best medical care in the world; by dedicating ample funding to veteran issues such as suicide, homelessness, drug addiction, PTSD, education and job training; and by giving active duty troops a coherent, strategic, consistent foreign policy so their lives aren’t wasted in some gut-instinct foolishness or the funding they need isn’t pissed away on a stupid wall that does nothing to solve immigration problems.

The second lesson:

The idea that there is glory in dying for one’s country at 18, or 83, whether on the battlefield or as a “warrior” defending the Dow Jones or the president’s reelection campaign is crap.

If the self-described “wartime (!?)” President Trump were half the man Truscott was, he would acknowledge the nearly 96,000 victims of COVID-19 and his role in their death instead of his (to again use a familiar presidential word) bullshit about his ineffectual China travel ban, his on-going claim “Anyone who wants a test can get one,” or his “I am not responsible for anything” cowardness.

Truscott was self-made. He got a teacher’s certificate in hardscrabble Oklahoma at age 16 (lying about his age); enlisted in 1917 and rode with the U.S. Calvary in the “war” against Pancho Villa on the Mexican border, and rose slowly in the ranks until WWII.

In that war he served with the legendary British commandos (and participated in the deadly-disastrous Dieppe Raid) then founded the U.S. Ranger battalions. He commanded troops both in North Africa and the invasion of Sicily and took over for failed Gen. John Lucas at Anzio. He commanded the invasion of Southern France.

Unlike Cadet Bonespurs, who just talks tough, Truscott was tough. His daddy never gave him a $450 million grubstake, he was never impeached, didn’t lie 18,000-plus times, never bragged about assaulting women, and never sacrificed American lives for personal political vanity.

On Memorial Day, 2020 let’s look to Lucian Truscott for inspiration; and consign Donald John Trump to the dustheap of history.

Tom Burke’s email address is t.burke.column@gmail.com.

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