It is not troubling to Paul Tibbets that so few Americans know his name. It does not concern him that not many more recognize Enola Gay as an important moniker of history. He does not care if posterity doesn't honor the man who dropped the first atomic bomb.
But it does disturb him that fewer and fewer seem to know why.
We used to call the differences between ourselves and our parents a "generation gap." Time has bridged this gulf somewhat, but we baby boomers are largely a group to whom "sacrifice" means turning off the cell phone in a restaurant or forgoing the moonroof on a SUV which costs more (and is almost larger) than our parents' houses. Raise your hand if you know what a Gold Star Mother is.
At least we know what heroes look like, a familiarity most of our children will never have. Real heroes – quiet, unassuming with an unflagging sense of duty.
Tibbets, now 83, recently spoke with Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene. He is a man at peace with himself.
"Do you have any idea how many American lives would have been lost had we launched a ground invasion of Japan, instead of dropping the bomb?" Tibbets told the Tribune. "And how many Japanese lives? I sleep so well because I know how many people got to live full lives because of what we did."
Tibbets is right in thinking it was the patriotic cause, and not the deed or person which really matters. If it hadn't been him, it would have been someone else. There were millions of American servicemen in World War II who willingly barked "Yes, sir!" when the tap on the shoulder came.
It is a sentiment to which few younger Americans, raised in freedom and prosperity, can relate. Tibbets says he "cannot communicate with people who are less than 60 years old. It's as if all of us in this country" know the same words, but we don't use the words the same way. We speak different languages."
To the generations which have followed Tibbets, war, no matter how right or righteous the cause, is acceptable only to the extent it can be removed from our lives with a click of the remote control – and is fought by someone else.
When I was writing this piece, I spoke to a woman in a coffee shop of the debt we owe those who fought for our freedom. Though she agreed with the absolute necessity of fighting and winning World War II, she said she would never let her son serve in such a cause.
"It would have to be fought by another mother's child," she said.
As America closes a half-century granted us by the soldiers of World War II, "common cause" refers to a political organization and "big picture" means something by which we differentiate television sets.
"Talk to a bunch of kids in school," Tibbets said. "Try to teach them something. You get the impression they don't like to pay attention to anyone or anything but themselves. I know I sound like an old person when I say this, but there is a certain price to be paid – a certain peril – that comes with the lack of being raised in a disciplined environment."
We thirty, forty and fifty-somethings owe a debt to Tibbets and the rest of his generation. Even though it is probably too late for us, we can repay it by restoring to the next generation the legacy which we ourselves have largely spurned. And the lesson to be taught is not as much what they did, but why.
Mandatory national service for all 18 and 19-year-olds would be a good place to start. If only for a fraction of their lives, all Americans – urban, rural, and suburban, black, white and Hispanic – would come to know the experience of coming together and uniting behind a single cause.
It's not the end of the world that few people know who Paul Tibbets is. But were it not for him and the millions like him, it would have been.
January 13, 1999