This week will see the anniversaries of two significant events of the 20th century. Today is the 25th anniversary of the crushing of the western democratic movement in red China and tomorrow is the 70th anniversary of Operation Overlord, also known as D-Day in the Second World War. This is a week when we need to remember when brave men, young and old, stood together and fought for their nations. In Tienanmen Square, it was a peaceful fight against the long horrors of Maoism and the disastrous Cultural Revolution of the preceding years. On the gloomy dawn of June 6th, 1944, it was the men, many of them young flowers of their generation who bled, fought, and died to ensure that peace would again grace the planet that had been tearing itself apart for five years.
Perhaps the most iconic photo and video of the Tienanmen Square incident is that of the "Tank Man". When the Chinese "Peoples Liberation Army" came in and forcibly removed the peaceful protestors on this day in 1989, the world was in flux. Communism was wavering in Europe, the Soviet Union was in its death throws, failing to stabilize under the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev. Glasnost and Perestroika were historically significant, but functionally just band-aids on a system rotting from within. The Soviet grip on the Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe was coming undone. The efforts of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Hungary in 1956 were crushed, but the idealism of those attempts to shake off the Soviet yoke persisted in the spirits of those people. In Poland Lech Walesa and others were trying to assert Polish independence anyway possible. Poland had been free and independent for just a few short years from 1918 until 1939 before being overrun by German and Soviet forces. However, the taste of freedom lasts a long time in a nation's collective memory. Whatever your thoughts on the Latin Catholic Church, the fact a Polish pope had been elected, and an staunch anti-communist one at that, added to the pressure on the Soviet system already wearing so very thin. It is no wonder that the Chinese communist party was nervous as the youth movement began to coalesce. Indeed a few months after Tienanmen Square, the Berlin Wall would suddenly come tumbling down on November 9th surprising all. Tienanmen could have very well been the Sino version of the Berlin Wall. However, unlike the East German Volkswehr, the hard liners still had a firm grasp on the Peoples Liberation Army and the army came marching in.
And yet against a wave of Soviet Type 59 main battle tanks, a lone man decided to stand up and say "You have come this far but you shall come no further". He stood there, unarmed, with only his will and defiance as a weapon. If the tank tried to go left around him, he would step in front of it, if it went right, he blocked the way. And surprisingly, the tanks were stopped. It was not until armed soldiers came and dragged him away that the tanks were able to pass. To this day, nearly a quarter of a century later, no one knows the identity this brave soul, simply known now as "the Tank Man". We also have no idea what became of him. Various reports coming out of China have been mixed. Some say he was executed by firing squad a week later, some say a few months, and some say he is still alive today and being held as a political prisoner. What matters is that one man knew that actions could speak louder than words, and that while he may not be bulletproof, an idea can be. He became an idea as that picture is instantly recognizable across the world today and has become a symbol of the struggle for freedom in red China.
Tomorrow is the 70th anniversary of D-Day. When men looking at expectations of horrible casualties stormed machine gun fire, jumped out of planes into thick anti aircraft flak, and pulled off perhaps the biggest gamble in the history of modern warfare. Fortress Europe was just that, and even the idle coast of Normandy was brimming with steel and teeth to prevent invasion. But men fought, bled, died, and took the beach. It has been a long time since a generation had to fight such odds and uncertainty, there has not been since a war since of this magnitude, and on June 6th 1944 victory was anything but certain. Germany still had plenty of muscle and held Western Europe in a firm grip. The Eastern Front had become fluid, but only at EXTREME loss for the Russians. To go in and fight with the outcome uncertain is a hallmark of bravery and courage.
So remember those who have fought and died for their freedom, and the freedom of others this week. Thousands of men, young and old (and in China many women) died or suffered because they stood up for the idea that men deserve to be free from oppression whether foreign or domestic. They are among the honored in our history and they should never be forgotten. As long as we keep producing human beings like this, the world will have a vanguard against tyranny. I salute them, and you should too.
|The famous Tank Man standing against Chinese Tanks|
|Storming the beaches at Normandy on D Day|