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Thinking the Unthinkable


America was founded in 1776 by men who believed that there were things worse than death—that principles enjoyed primacy over the sustenance of life for its own sake. They knew there was a good chance they would either die during their insurrection or be hanged later if they failed. Their letters and journals reveal that they worried about what punitive indignities the British might visit upon their families. But passivity was not an option. “We of this Generation,” wrote John Adams, “are destined to Act a painful and a dangerous Part, and We must make the best of our Lot.” Or consider this from John Jay: “The consciousness of having done our duty to our country and posterity, must recompense us for all the evils we experience in their cause.”

Around 6,800 Americans died on the battlefield during the War of Independence, while perhaps 20,000 more died of injuries and/or disease, many in British captivity. That estimated tally represented 0.8 percent of the total US population, which at the time stood at a mere 2.5 million. That is an astonishing number. An equivalent death toll in today’s America would be 2.7 million. 

Some 186 years later, on June 6, 1944, the nuclear age was still a year away, but as they stormed Omaha Beach, the men of Operation Overlord knew that their chances…

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