Post Date: September 2, 2005

The following op-ed by Visiting Professor Mary Dudziak, Huricane Damage, originally appeared in The Boston Globe on September 2, 2005.

As waters rose in the streets of Biloxi and New Orleans, President Bush took to the airwaves in San Diego on Tuesday in an effort to capture the nation’s attention with a different crisis. The war in Iraq, which he framed as part of a ”war on terror” tied to Sept. 11, had its legacy in World War II, he argued, and the nation must devote itself to this new war.

Drawing from the memory of World War II, the president invoked one of the most powerful statements about that war’s meaning. It was delivered by Roland Gittlesohn, a chaplain with the Marine Corps on the island of Iwo Jima who would later become rabbi at Boston’s Temple Israel. The rabbi delivered a eulogy for the living as much as for the dead. One message was that the carnage of the war simply had to open a door to a new world. As Bush later quoted: ”Out of this . . . will come, we promise, the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere.”

But what sort of ”new freedom” did Rabbi Gittlesohn have in mind in his World War II eulogy? As bodies are laid out for burial in Iraq — and soon will be in American Gulf cities — can we draw contemporary lessons from Gittlesohn’s fuller message for our own time? While the president cast the meaning of war’s transformative power outward, toward other nations, hoping for democratization in Iraq, Gittlesohn directed it inward, toward America itself.

”Here lie men who loved America,” he said. ”Here lie officers and men, Negroes and whites, rich and poor, together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith, or despises him because of his color. . . . Among these men there is no discrimination, no prejudice, no hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.”

The equality these soldiers had found in death was, for Gittelsohn, at the heart of the war’s meaning. ”Whoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony, and of the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. Thus, then, do we, the living, now dedicate ourselves to the right of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, of white men and Negroes alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have paid the price.”

There was an irony in the equality Gittelsohn found among the fallen soldiers. The military forces that fought in Iwo Jima were racially segregated. Yet this did not dampen Gittelsohn’s passionate argument that out of the carnage of Iwo Jima came a commitment and an obligation to give democracy meaning across the divisions of race, religion, and class. ”Too much blood has gone into this soil for us to let it lie barren. Too much pain and heartache have fertilized the earth on which we stand. We here solemnly swear: it shall not be in vain.” And here he ended with the line quoted by our president: ”Out of this will come, we promise, the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere.”

And so the new freedom promised was a freedom that started within. It was a lesson learned by many during the war — the idea that the nation could not save the world for democracy if it did not begin by saving itself. Wendell Willkie put it this way: ”Our very proclamations of what we are fighting for have rendered our own inequities self-evident. When we talk of freedom and opportunity for all nations, the mocking paradoxes in our own society become so clear they can no longer be ignored.”

The president may well hope to bring American-style rights someday to the bombed-out streets of Baghdad, but as waters remain in American neighborhoods, flooding the homes of those who lacked the means to flee Katrina’s fury, a better start might be with the unfulfilled and seemingly forgotten hopes of the World War II generation. While a crisis like Katrina spares no one in its path, heavy burdens always fall on those who have the least. Americans don’t like to think about economic classes, but in natural disasters class can be tied to survival itself. And as rebuilding moves forward, many families in the Gulf Coast may find a fragile middle-class status more difficult than ever to maintain.

There is immediate suffering in Katrina’s wake, but the hurricane has swept over a structure of American inequality, exposing it for a moment. The question for us all is whether we shall take the opportunity to see it.

Mary L. Dudziak is a professor at the University of Southern California Law School and a visiting professor at Harvard Law School.