America’s ‘Silver Platter’



After Israel's War of Independence, Hebrew poet Nathan Alterman famously memorialized those who fell in that struggle in his poem "Magash Hakesef" — "The Silver Platter."

The reference was to a statement by the country's first president that no one was going to hand the Jews a state "on a silver platter." In other words, it would have to be earned by sweat and blood.

Alterman's poem speaks of a young girl and a boy "dressed in battle garb," and "bone weary from days and nights in the field." The poet speaks of a nation "in tears" asking "who are you?" of the two.

The pair, symbols of the 6,000 who died in battle so that Israel and the Jewish people might live, reply: "We are the silver platter on which the Jews' state was presented today."

Throughout history, liberty has always been purchased at the price of the sacrifice of the young and the brave.

Due to the requirements of defending a country whose existence much of the world still refuses to accept, Israelis are subject to a draft that brings the majority of the nation's youth into the army. But that's not the case for Americans. For us, the draft is but a distant memory linked to the service of fathers and grandfathers.

Rumors of War

As the world's only superpower, we have gotten by with an all-volunteer military for more than 30 years. Military service is simply not something that most upper- and middle-class kids even consider when they leave high school.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, when America itself was attacked by Islamist terrorists, and the subsequent launch of the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it has been common to speak of the United States as a nation at war. That is true. But though it is a war in which our survival is very much hanging in the balance, it's hard to notice if you judge by the way almost all of us live our lives.

The people who do the fighting and the dying are largely strangers to the vast majority of Americans who go about their business each day with scarcely a thought about those who make our blithe indifference possible.

But for a couple of days last month, I got a small taste of what life is like for some of the people in the military and learned a little about what makes some of them tick. In this case, it was a visit to the USS Harry S. Truman, taking part in exercises in the Atlantic before the ship sets sail next month for the Persian Gulf. The Truman is one of the most powerful battle systems in our nation's arsenal. Its jet aircraft can bring more firepower into action by itself than the entire air forces of all but a handful of other countries.

Stepping out onto the deck of the Truman at sea is, for those of us accustomed to our soft civilian lives, a visceral experience pretty much like landing on a different planet. The noise, both above and below decks, is deafening and constant. The danger from the hot jet exhaust, fuel lines, missiles and other impediments of naval aviation provide a frightening obstacle course for the swarms of crew dressed in shirts of various colors (a different one for each of the various tasks involved in getting a plane aloft) who perform an elaborate nonstop action ballet in the course of performing their duties.

Powerful jet aircraft, including the navy's top-of-the-line fighters, the F-18 Hornets and Super-Hornets, took off and landed constantly as the carrier "cycled" — practicing round-the-clock air missions just as they will be required to do in battle.

Flying and landing on a pitching deck in the middle of the ocean is a perilous occupation. Even putting aside the military objectives that they will pursue once they are in position to aid American ground forces in Iraq, literally every thing they do on such a ship is a matter of life and death.

The intense pressure to get their tasks right each and every time is enormous. Theirs is a mission that is unforgiving of even the most casual or minor mistakes. The loss of one of their E-2 Hawkeye radar planes and the three aviators aboard in a nighttime takeoff a few weeks ago brought that truth home.

The sailors and aviators work long hours every day. Their compensation is minimal, and they are forced to be qualified and requalified constantly in each of their disciplines.

Who leaves the comforts of home to do such difficult work?

The majority of those aboard the Truman are kids, most of the enlisted personnel are under 25. Many are teenagers fresh out of high school. Most come from the lower end of the economic ladder. They seek money for college via the G.I. bill or technical skills that will lead to civilian jobs.

But throughout the ship, it's easy to see that morale is high. Talk to anyone on board in various departments, and their dedication to their tasks — and pride in their ship and its planes — is not to be underestimated.

The esprit de corps is manifested in the swaggering nicknames assumed by both pilots and their squadrons ("Gunslingers," "Zappers" and "Rawhides," to name a few). But behind the silly names are dedicated professionals for whom old-fashioned patriotism is a major motivation.

'Standing Up'

With the men and women (the ship's crew is 20 percent female, a number that includes the commander of one of the F-18 squadrons) of the Truman soon headed into harm's way in the Persian Gulf, where they will fly combat missions in Iraq, that's a factor that can be a premium. Though the war has lost support from many Americans, the Truman, under the leadership of native Philadelphian Capt. Herm Shelanski, is prepared to do its part in the fighting.

Shelanski, a student of history, understands that "standing up" to the Islamist tyrants of Iran and their terrorist allies in the region is a crucial mission and a threat that cannot be safely ignored. A proud Jew, he also isn't shy about pointing out that Israel's safety is connected to the ability of its sole ally to maintain its strength in the region and throughout the globe.

Sadly, some on the Truman may not come home from the Gulf. With Iraq now a political football and a maddening Sept. 10th mentality infecting much of the electorate, some of us may choose to ignore or denigrate the value of their sacrifices. But it is the brave men and women of our armed forces — like the crew of the Truman, volunteers all — who are the "silver platter" upon which America's freedoms are being handed to each one of us here.

As Nathan Alterman wrote in a not dissimilar context, "the rest can be found in the history books."

Contact Jonathan S. Tobin via e-mail at: jtobin@jewishexponent. com.



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