Subject: Colin Powell's Tribute to the American G.I.
As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I referred to the men and women of the armed forces as "G.I.s." It got me in trouble with some of my colleagues at the time. Several years earlier, the Army had officially excised the term as an unfavorable characterization derived from the designation "government issue."
Sailors and Marines wanted to be known as Sailors and Marines. Airmen, notwithstanding their origins as a rib of the Army, wished to be called simply airmen. Collectively, they were blandly referred to as "service members."
I persisted in using G.I.s and found I was in good company. Newspapers and television shows used it all the time. The most famous and successful government education program was known as the G.I. Bill, and it still uses that title for a newer generation of veterans. When you added one of the most common boy's names to it, you got G.I. Joe, and the name of the most popular boy's toy ever, the G.I. Joe action figure. And let's not forget G.I. Jane.
G.I. is a World War II term that two generations later continues to conjure up the warmest and proudest memories of a noble war that pitted pure good against pure evil and good triumphed.
The victors in that war were the American G.I.s, the Willies and Joes, the farmer from Iowa and the steelworker from Pittsburgh who stepped off a landing craft into the hell of Omaha Beach.
The G.I. was the wisecracking kid Marine from Brooklyn who clawed his way up a deadly hill on a Pacific island.
He was a black fighter pilot escorting white bomber pilots over Italy and Germany, proving that skin color had nothing to do with skill or courage.
He was a native Japanese-American infantryman released from his own country's concentration camp to join the fight.
She was a nurse relieving the agony of a dying teenager.
He was a petty officer standing on the edge of a heaving aircraft carrier with two signal paddles in his hands, helping guide a dive-bomber pilot back onto the deck.
They were America.
They reflected our diverse origins.
They were the embodiment of the American spirit of courage and dedication.
They were truly a "people's army," going forth on a crusade to save democracy and freedom, to defeat tyrants, to save oppressed peoples and to make their families proud of them. They were the Private Ryans, and they stood firm in the thin red line.
For most of those G.I.s, World War II was the adventure of their lifetime. Nothing they would ever do in the future would match their experiences as the warriors of democracy, saving the world from its own insanity. You can still see them in every Fourth of July color guard, their gait faltering but ever proud.
Their forebears went by other names: doughboys, Yanks, buffalo soldiers, Johnny Reb, Rough Riders. But "G.I." will be forever lodged in the consciousness of our nation to apply to them all. The G.I. carried the value system of the American people. The G.I.s were the surest guarantee of America's commitment. For more than 200 years, they answered the call to fight the nation's battles. They never went forth as mercenaries on the road to conquest. They went forth as reluctant warriors, as citizen soldiers.
They were as gentle in victory as they were vicious in battle.
I've had survivors of Nazi concentration camps tell me of the joy they experienced as the G.I.s liberated them: America had arrived!
I've had a wealthy Japanese businessman come into my office and tell me what it was like for him as a child in 1945 to await the arrival of the dreaded American beasts, and instead meet a smiling G.I. who gave him a Hershey bar.
In thanks, the businessman was donating a large sum of money to the USO. After thanking him, I gave him as a souvenir a Hershey bar I had autographed. He took it and began to cry. The 20th century can be called many things, but it was most certainly a century of war.
The American G.I.s helped defeat fascism and communism.
They came home in triumph from the ferocious battlefields of World Wars I and II. In Korea and Vietnam they fought just as bravely as any of their predecessors, but no triumphant receptions awaited them at home. They soldiered on through the twilight struggles of the cold war and showed what they were capable of in Desert Storm. The American people took them into their hearts again.
In this century hundreds of thousands of G.I.s died to bring to the beginning of the 21st century the victory of democracy as the ascendant political system on the face of the earth. The G.I.s were willing to travel far away and give their lives, if necessary, to secure the rights and freedoms of others. Only a nation such as ours, based on a firm moral foundation, could make such a request of its citizens. And the G.I.s wanted nothing more than to get the job done and then return home safely. All they asked for in repayment from those they freed was the opportunity to help them become part of the world of democracy, and just enough land to bury their fallen comrades, beneath simple white crosses and Stars of David.
The volunteer G.I.s of today stand watch in Korea, the Persian Gulf, Europe and the dangerous terrain of the Balkans. We must never see them as mere hirelings, off in a corner of our society. They are our best, and we owe them our full support and our sincerest thanks.
As this century closes, we look back to identify the great leaders and personalities of the past 100 years. We do so in a world still troubled, But full of promise. That promise was gained by the young men and women of America who fought and died for freedom. Near the top of any listing of the most important people of the 20th century must stand, in singular honor, the American G.I.
General Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is now chairman of America's Promise.