NEW ORLEANS, La. -- Everyone born after 1945 ought to spend a day at the National World War II Museum, one of this city's major accomplishments since Katrina left us wondering whether it was over for this cosmopolitan gem on the banks of the Mississippi. The museum honors the "last good war" fought by what some historians call the "greatest generation."
Encompassing several acres in the old downtown warehouse district a few blocks from the iconic French Quarter, this enterprise is a stirring documentation of how 132 million Americans literally saved the free world during World War II. For those of us who were alive but not of an age to fight, the memories of scrap drives, rationing, war bonds and tears for loved ones came flooding back.
Walking for hours through the exhibits, pausing to watch videos and read explanations, I couldn't help think that it was a fitting time to be there while the White House and Congress back in Washington were vetting new leadership for the Department of Defense. Specifically, a Senate committee was grilling President Barack Obama's nominee for secretary of defense, former GOP senator and decorated Vietnam veteran Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.
In that hearing, two heroes of a war in Southeast Asia squared off over entirely different wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, wars that have lasted more than twice as long as the global conflict I was reviewing.
Hagel and Sen. John McCain faced one another in a question-and-answer session that brought no honor to either party. McCain, the former Republican presidential nominee and captured Navy pilot, treated Hagel, his former Republican colleague and once seemingly fast friend, to an interrogation that bordered on the incivility that has become almost the norm on Capitol Hill. Hagel's response was weak and disjointed, almost as though he'd never been on the other side of such a hearing.
I watched part of the exchange in the museum's old-fashioned, 1940s soda shop, where you can actually get a soda. I kept wondering why anyone would sit through this angry, unenlightening nonsense. Apparently, what provoked McCain to the point of clenched-teeth annoyance was Hagel's opposition to George W. Bush's Iraq surge on the grounds that it would only result in the loss of more American lives.
McCain, a proponent of the controversial increase in troops, would have none of that.
Did anyone benefit from the exchange and the GOP attacks on their former Senate colleague? The rest of the senators, the Republican Party, politics generally, the public? Hardly!
Democrats probably have the votes to confirm Hagel, even if Republicans filibuster. Personally, I am convinced Hagel will be a strong defense secretary and moderating voice to the neo-con hawks -- without damaging our security or giving way to those who want to downgrade the nation's military once again.
One exhibit showed that America's pre-war strength in men under arms ranked 18th in the world. Compared to the Axis powers -- Japan and Germany -- we weren't even in the game in 1941. But it didn't take long for that to change. Japanese Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, had feared awakening a "sleeping giant." His planes indeed awoke America's industrial might and its citizens' fierce determination.
Our industrial capacity may not be the same, but today we face a different kind of threat and we're looking at different ways to cope with it. The big, draft-swollen standing army passed decades ago. Today's troops are better trained, much more efficient professionals supplied with constantly improving technology.
The comparison with that last, great global conflict of nearly 70 years ago is valid only in one respect: the spirit of those Americans who responded to the threat so thoroughly displayed in this museum. Hagel won't change that, and McCain knows it.
(Dan Thomasson is former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.)