Peace | Guam's Military Museum | The
Magazine prepared a list of the 10 most influential people of the century in each field to
mark the end of the century. The 10 most influential scientists, politicians,
entertainers, sports figures, musicians, artists, and industrialists. This month they
published the 10 most influential people (overall) of the century. They named
"the American GI" the most influential person of the century. It is the only one
that is not a single individual. General Powell wrote the introduction to the award.
" G.I's "
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
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
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 GI.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
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
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.