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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

Masks, U-boats, and personal responsibility

Two German submarines meet as they head toward

Two German submarines meet as they head toward New York's coastline in the distance in October 1942. Credit: ullstein bild via Getty Images/ullstein bild Dtl.

Within weeks of Germany declaring war on the United States, following Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor 79 years ago on Dec. 7, Unterseeboots began appearing in strength off New York Harbor.

These U-boats, as they were better known, had a tried-and-true method for stalking and sinking American troop and cargo ships headed to Europe from our large Atlantic ports.

Through their periscopes, the Germans could see silhouettes of the ships pulling out of the harbor, made possible by house lights left on in New York City, New Jersey and Long Island. Once spotted, the vessels were all but sitting ducks. Down they went, one after another, along with their brave young passengers and tons of precious war materiale.

I spoke this year with a retired chief petty officer who served on a destroyer escort whose job it was to protect some of those ships. He’s 100 years old, and one can still feel his bitterness toward American civilians living close to shore in those years who "just wouldn’t turn off their damn lights." "We lost a lot of good men," he said.

This story doesn’t fit the narrative many of us have of the war. Didn’t we band together and defeat Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo? Wasn’t it all for one and one for all?

Well, yes, mostly — but not completely. There were plenty of American draft dodgers during World War II, and countless smugglers and profiteers. But it’s the people who left their lights on along the Atlantic coast that I can’t help think about when I see the U.S. COVID-19 death count soaring. They were repeatedly advised by the U.S. War Department to keep their homes blacked out — that failing to do so would cost American lives — and yet they couldn’t be inconvenienced, so other Americans died.

Similarly, it’s been 10 months since we learned that wearing masks and social distancing protect ourselves and our neighbors against COVID-19 spread — it’s talked about in the media Every. Single. Day. — and yet millions of Americans still can’t be bothered to do these two simple things and save lives.

There seems to be confusion, especially, among those who have politicized mask wearing, the America-is-a-free-country-so-you-can’t-make-me-do-anything crowd. They cling to a warped libertarianism under the auspices of patriotism, when it is anything but. Not wearing a mask today is about as patriotic as leaving one’s shoreline lights on during the War, and in the end, it will cost more lives.

I’m sensitive to libertarians because I consider myself among them generally. But let’s get real: If the U.S. government can pluck you or me off a street corner, put a rifle in our hands and ship us off to fight a foreign enemy, it can almost certainly require us to wear a mask during a historic health emergency if it wanted to. But it shouldn’t have to.

Each of us is supposed to understand that preserving freedom sometimes requires sacrifices. There’s a graveyard of U.S. ships off our coast filled with boys and girls of a previous generation who instinctively understood that. They gave up their freedoms to board those boats because kicking in is what one does when one’s country is in peril — no matter what.

When did our concept of freedom go so awry?

William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.

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