As we celebrate Veterans’ Day – technically it was yesterday, November 11th, but we’ve done this extend-the-weekend thing; as a Federal employee I thank you – it is time to think, one day per annum, about the nature of sacrifice, pro patria mori, et al. War is a constant in human life, no matter how much progressives wish it weren’t, and America has been lucky enough to not have to fight on its own soil, with all the horrors that entails, in a century and a half. Wars for Americans are an expeditionary thing, far away, and these days hardly felt by 99 percent of the public; the dead arrive in limited numbers at Dover, customarily tactfully away from cameras, and that’s that. We have privatized not just whole swaths of our once-vibrant economy, but suffering and grief to boot.
It’s not always been that way, of course. Find any veteran over 60 or so and ask him; buy him a drink if you’re a mensch. I’ve served my country – I plan on getting my free Bloomin’ Onion at Outback today, time permitting – and I’ve been to more than one warzone. But I’ve not been to war the way my father (three tours in Vietnam) was, to say nothing of relatives who survived even worse in Korea, World War Two, World War One. When I was a kid I didn’t know about PTSD but I was well acquainted with, “Hey, get me another beer” late in the evening, when sleep was elusive.
Since our Veterans’ Day is tied up in the Great War – eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month and all that – we have regrettably internalized the tragic futility of that conflict in our discussions of war and memory. And, whatever my historical misgivings about the whole Dulce et decorum est crowd, that conflict, which pretty much ruined Western Civilization, was nothing if not tragic, in the full sense: heck, I’ve written a whole book about that, and why we must remember it.
But the oversensitive war poet approach overlooks the fact that wars are sometimes necessary, sometimes unavoidable. Like when foreigners invade your country; then, suddenly, there is no choice. Then, you must muster all your courage, no matter the cost, and fight until you can fight no more.
America knows little of this, but others do. Many NATO allies know all about this. I think often of the fate of Poland, which was cruelly dismembered in September 1939 by Hitler and Stalin. Her gallant military, outnumbered and outgunned, fought to the bitter end, to no avail. Her vanquished armies retreated, fighting every step of the way, and never capitulated. Her government went into exile, with her soldiers, continuing the fight and refusing to give in.
But most Polish soldiers, unable to escape to Hungary or Romania, wound up as POWs by the end of September 1939 – the unlucky ones were in Soviet hands. The following spring horror ensued. In an effort to make their future takeover of all of Poland less troublesome, the Soviets decapitated the country by systematically executing Polish officers – 22,000 in all. They were shot in the back of the head and disposed of like cordwood.
Each man was a human being with a family and a story. Today we will speak of Colonel Szymon Fedoronko. A middle-aged man, he was a career officer, unlike most of those murdered at Katyn, who were largely reservists (the Soviets thereby deprived Poland of her professional caste – lawyers, teachers, accountants, doctors, anyone who might resist Soviet rule). He was the chief Orthodox chaplain in the Polish military, a man of the cloth in uniform. Generals were murdered alongside lieutenants; death at the hands of the NVKD proved no respecter of person or rank. Those who died with Fedoronko included Baruch Steinberg, the Polish military’s chief rabbi. They shared a bullet to the back of the head and an unmarked mass grave.
Undaunted, Polish soldiers in exile and at home, underground, continued the fight. Perhaps most famously, Polish pilots played a significant role in the Battle of Britain, besting the Luftwaffe as it tried to do to Britain what it had done to Poland. Polish squadrons in the Royal Air Force marched under the standard that had been made in secret in their occupied homeland and shipped to Britain clandestinely. It bore the inscription Miłość żąda ofiary (Love demands sacrifice).
Under that standard the Polish Air Force in Britain fought on. As did Col. Fedoronko’s sons, who did not know their father’s fate. Among the many who did not return from missions over Germany was Alexander, age 26, a pilot with 300 Squadron, lost in 1944. A few months later his two brothers would die heroically, leading the Warsaw Uprising against brutal Nazi occupation: Orest, age 22, fell on the first day of the revolt, followed two weeks later by 24 year-old Wiaczeslaw. There ended the Fedoronko clan.
The sacrifice of the Fedoronko family featured prominently in the memorial speech of Polish President Lech Kaczynski – the speech he never gave since he was killed with his wife and 94 senior government representatives when his Tu-154 airliner crashed at Smolensk in April 2010, on their way to commemorate the dead of Katyn. Among the many lost in the crash was Miron Chodakowski, the Polish military’s chief Orthodox chaplain and Szymon Fedoronko’s successor.