Within a generation’s time, nearly all of the 16 million American veterans who served in World War II will be gone. And the biggest insult, the gravest disservice of Trump’s giving comfort to Hitler sympathizers, is to those who fought to save the world from evil more than 70 years ago.
“Because I’m old, now 94, I recognize these omens of doom,” wrote Harry Leslie Smith, a Royal Air Force veteran, in an essay this week in The Guardian. “Chilling signs are everywhere, perhaps the biggest being that the U.S. allows itself to be led by Donald Trump, a man deficient in honor, wisdom and just simple human kindness.”
To those grave deficiencies, you can add one more: historical illiteracy. In his grievance-burst of a news conference this week, Trump had this to say about those who showed up to protest the neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates: “You are changing history, you’re changing culture.”
In truth, it was the raising of statues in the early 20th century — when the Lost Cause whitewash of the confederacy of slaveholders was in full swing — that was an attempt to change both culture and history. George Washington will be next, Trump said, using a line that neo-Nazis throw around at their hatefests.
The founders, flawed but brilliant men, put their lives at risk to create a nation built on principles that took a long time to realize. Robert E. Lee was a traitor, the best general of a war that killed more Americans than any other. His statue no more belongs on a pedestal than does that of Hitler’s most proficient military man.
History and culture are what Civitella embodies, for his story is the American story. His father, an immigrant from Italy, died when Caesar was young. With the call of war, he volunteered for jump school at Fort Benning, Ga. Then the Office of Strategic Services, a spy service that did much more than snoop and decode, selected him for especially dangerous duty. Civitella jumped into occupied France. Working with the French Resistance, he killed his share of Nazis, he said, and helped capture 4,000 of them.
Next up was a mission to go after Mussolini. But as the son of an Italian immigrant, his loyalty was challenged. “I was asked if I would hesitate to kill an Italian who worked with the Nazis. I said, nope.”
His generation includes George H. W. Bush, another war hero, the same age as Civitella. This week Bush, with his son George W., released a simple, decent statement on the toxicity of racial hatred.
No such message came from the empty shell of Donald Trump, a man who once said his own personal Vietnam was avoiding sexually transmitted diseases in the wilds of Manhattan. Warming the hearts of the little Hitlers this week, Trump claimed to have looked carefully at the hatemongers in Charlottesville and found many good citizens.
He must have missed the chants of “Jews will not replace us!” and “Blood and soil,” a favorite of Hitler’s murderous legions. Or he must have overlooked the thugs brandishing semiautomatic rifles and chanting “Sieg! Heil!” outside the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Charlottesville.
It doesn’t take much to find the sources of the best American culture and history. You won’t find them in the “beautiful statues and monuments” — Trump’s words this week — of slaveholders and traitors. Look instead to those like Civitella, who are not yet cast in bronze but deserve to be — the living memory.