– Gen. Omar N. Bradley
I just spent a gloriously warm and beautiful summer day at Omaha Beach in Normandy, the tip of the spear in the famous invasion to wrest Europe back from the Nazis in June, 1944.
Monuments, museums and cemeteries abound along the northern coast of Normandy. But even in places where there’s nothing visible to the eye except beige sand, aqua blue water and bikini-clad sunbathers, there’s a weight that pulls from beneath the surface, an undertow of sorrow, as though the enormity of the events of 67 summers ago have left an indelible mark on the land here.
Over the course of about 10 weeks, there were more than 425,000 Allied and German casualties, plus about 20,000 French civilians.
It was deeply sad, sitting on the grass of the American Cemetery in Coleville-sur-Mer, with its more than 9,300 identical white crosses (and the occasional Star of David) in rigid ranks and files, marking the graves of young men who were fed into that meat grinder. All the pain, all the suffering, all the lost potential. What a waste …
But what they did, what they made happen, changed the face of western civilization. It’s hard to imagine what our world would look like now if Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich had not been pushed back and defeated, if a regime that dark and cruel and ruthless had prevailed in Europe.
I’m highly allergic to the glorification of war dead. When the jingoistic platitudes about young men “sacrificing their lives for their country” crank up, my bullshit alarm starts clanging. The powerful have employed those platitudes to manipulate the patriotic impulses of young men and their families for centuries, usually for their own greater glory or enrichment.
But I found it hard to sit on that expansive lawn, surrounded by those somber white crosses, and not feel as though I was in the presence of heroes.
As a child of the 60s, I came of age as the war in Vietnam was reaching its bloody climax. My earliest political actions were in opposition to that war. And through my adult life, I’ve often been appalled at the way my country has projected its power through the world. Pretty much every conflict the US has been involved in during my lifetime has seemed to me – despite the eternal rhetoric about fighting to bring freedom to oppressed people – to be more about furthering sordid political ends. They have not seemed to me worthy causes that justified asking American families to offer up the lives of their sons and daughters.
Looking down from the hilltops of Omaha Beach, it felt as though the conflict that once turned this lovely countryside into a slaughterhouse was such a cause.
When I ask my elderly French neighbors about the summer of 1944, they tell touching stories of being liberated by the Americans. They talk about how brutal the German occupiers were and how elated they were when Patton’s tanks rolled through the village. They speak of the kindness of the GIs and of their generosity.
It’s then that I feel something I’ve not often felt in my life: I feel proud of being an American, of coming from people willing and able to turn back the tide of evil in a land across the sea because it had to be done, and there was no one else to do it.
I also feel a dread, a fear of the dark impulses that made such heartbreaking sacrifice necessary in the first place.
I recently spent a couple of weeks in Germany, primarily Berlin. Berlin is a very interesting city, being as it is the epicenter of two crimes against humanity. It was the seat of the Third Reich, and it was sliced in two for 28 years by the Berlin Wall.
It’s interesting to me to see how Berliners live with their history. You’ll be walking round the city, remarking on some architectural feature or another, and suddenly notice a small plaque on a wall noting, “From this train station, 20,000 elderly Jews were transported to concentration camps,” or some similarly appalling factoid.
In conversations with German officials – from the Defense Ministry to national political parties — it seemed clear to me that Germans, even today, are living under the shadow of the enormous evil they allowed to emerge from their land more than three generations ago. When the drums started beating and the flags started waving and their leaders started evoking all those patriotic cliches, they lined up and marched across the continent to visit horror on their neighbors and their own citizens, as well. And in Germany today, militarism – and even patriotism — still bears the stain of those blood crimes. For many Germans, it’s still impossible to feel truly good about their country.
That’s what happens when we let zealots take power. That’s what comes of allowing the True Believers of any stripe to have unfettered control of others’ lives. Because for True Believers, the purity is what matters, the comforting clarity of certainty. Whether it’s certainty about what God wants you to do, or the certainty that your political party has all the answers or – as in the recent horror in Norway – the certainly that The Other is evil and must be destroyed before they can destroy your kind. As Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
In June of 1944, many, many people had to pay the price for one country allowing its zealots to get their hands on the reins of power. Nearly 70 years later, the scars are still there and phantom pains still can be felt in limbs that were amputated decades ago.
Sitting on that meticulously-trimmed lawn above Omaha Beach, in glorious sunshine with a warm salt breeze wafting up from the sea, I resolved to do whatever is in my power to make sure that is never allowed to happen again.