Over the past several weeks, I’ve begun to write articles for The Polish Weekly that re-examine – and, at times, criticize – practices and perceptions that, in my view, limit our peoples’ ability to succeed in modern American life. I strongly hold these views; but, I share them to initiate inter-Polonian debates about our community’s future.
I therefore write these articles with only the best intentions; and, those who have responded to them – both in support and opposition – undeniably share the same goodwill. I sincerely thank all those who have recently joined the conversation and contributed to its civil but open atmosphere. Our community will not sufficiently advance if we do not support honest introspection and debate – and, I thereby hope that our varied and extensive readership continues to share its views. So, to those who read this – keep the letters coming! This conversation is ultimately for you, and we need your support to make it fruitful.
On June 3, 2009, I published “Misplaced Allegiance”, which criticized those in American Polonia who hold overly nationalistic inclinations toward their Polish heritage; and, on June 17, 2009, I published “The Unbreakable World”, which examined American Polonia’s commitment to internationalism. Both articles argued for greater openness to communities outside our own; and, they aimed to illustrate that deeper integration with domestic and international societies serves our long-term interests. In my view, these articles better reflect Polonia’s current state and circumstances, and the views presented therein prepare us better for the challenges that likely lie ahead. Today, I revisit and re-argue – for one last time – many similar issues; but, I do so from a slightly different perspective. Instead of evaluating Polonia’s relationship with other communities and cultures, I’ll examine its relationship with modern times.
On January 17, 1944, Allied forces in Europe initiated an advance on German defenses to break the so-called Winter Line that defended Rome. These German defenses would eventually be positioned in the bombed-out ruins of an abbey on Monte Cassino; and, the Allies would require no less than four assaults to finally seize control of that strategic point. The final assault began on the evening of May 11, 1944; and, for this attack, Polish forces joined those from the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Free France, and others to set conditions under which the Allies could eventually capture Rome. The Battle of Monte Cassino is indelibly – and correctly – etched into the Polish memory; and, we rightly teach our kids about the Polish effort to earn the Allied victory. We appropriately show them pictures of the War Cemetery that exists there, teach the words to the anthem that recalls the bravery exhibited there, and explain the cultural significance of the red poppies that evoke the sacrifices endured there.
But, here’s an interesting question: how many of us in American Polonia have heard of Lt. Gen. Richard F. Natonski, and how many understand his role in the Battle of Fallujah? Most independent analysts consider the Battle of Fallujah to be the bloodiest assault of the Iraq War. American forces first attempted to pacify Fallujah in April 2004; but, after that assault failed, they returned in November 2004 to seize control of the city. The United States says that those involved in the operation endured the “… heaviest urban combat (that [America] had been involved in) since the Battle of Hue City in Vietnam”; and, in the 46-day assault that ensued, 95 American soldiers and approximately 1,350 insurgents died.
Lt. Gen. Natonski is the second-generation Polish-American that led the operation in Fallujah. His military career began in 1973, when the United States Marine Corps commissioned him as a Second Lieutenant. Before he assumed command of the Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade in June 2002, he led operations in countries like Cambodia, South Vietnam, Cuba, Somalia, and Bosnia; and, in 2003, he led troops in Iraq that fought the Battle of An-Nasiryah and rescued PFC Jessica Lynch. Lt. Gen. Natonski is a shining example of someone from our community who has assumed a position of great importance; and, his success directly affects the safety and prosperity of modern times. If anyone is to trumpet his successful leadership, it should be American Polonia; but somehow, few from our community have even heard of him, and few understand or appreciate the importance of his success.
This article is not about our relationship with the American military or to those who lead it; it is instead about our relationship with modern times. Our community hasn’t heard of Lt. Gen. Natonski not because it disapproves of his efforts, but because it too often links its cultural identity with events that occurred decades and centuries ago. We too often search for heroes during the Cold War, World War II, or previous centuries without recognizing that Polish Americans currently and tirelessly contribute to fix problems in modern times. Many among us have not adequately refocused their attention from events that occurred before the fall of Soviet Communism – and, this hinders our ability to successfully address modern concerns.
Poland has successfully transformed itself into a modern, stable democracy; and recently, it has assumed important responsibilities all around the world. The United States and Poland – and therefore, American Polonia – have interests in modern times that require their focused insight and attention. For instance, the United States and Poland will soon participate in efforts to regain control of Afghanistan; they’ll likely employ joint diplomatic pressure toward disputes with Iran and Russia; and, they’ll likely adopt economic policies to lessen the effects of the ongoing global recession. These are difficult issues; and often, those from within our community – indeed, even those within our own neighborhoods – are intimately involved in the efforts to resolve them. If we spend all our time reliving events that occurred thirty, sixty, or one hundred years ago, we’ll be unprepared to address the issues that affect us now.
It’s not wrong to maintain our understanding and appreciation of Polish history; but, we ought to balance our identification toward the past with a renewed focus toward present issues. We all live in troubled times; and, our people – both in the United States and Poland – deserve appreciation for the work they do to unravel them. We can do much more to honor their effort and sacrifice; and, we can do much more to realign our attention to the issues they regularly confront. So, let’s refocus our attention and realign our identity – as a broader Polonian community – to modern-day issues; and, hope that our American and Polish forebears have taught us enough to resolve them successfully.
The Polish Weekly welcomes opposing viewpoints. To contact Thomas Mikulski, please send an e-mail to email@example.com.