Last summer on a road trip through the west of France, I decided that as an American I needed to do the obligatory stop at Omaha Beach, the site of the infamous D-Day.
Not a huge World War II buff, I didn’t have many expectations. But, the moment I arrived, crossing the bluff just across the street from the La Sapienere Hotel (a must place to stay) – past the Charles Shay Indian Memorial with an American flag flapping in the wind – I was absolutely moved to behold the absolute peacefulness of the beach before me.
How could so many young people’s lives be shattered – many due to poor planning, poor strategy and poor logistics – on this very beach, one of the most peaceful and rustic beaches I have ever set foot on. In front of us was a local man, a father with his two small children pulling small octopuses and flounders from the surf with his little homemade net. Explain to me how this seemingly empty and pristine beach, full of tiny aquatic life, was in reality the brutal resting place of +2000 young lives on a single morning 75 years ago. How could a place of such natural beauty, simplicity and calm once have been a theater of death, a turning point in history?
The next day when we walked by the various monuments and plaques commemorating the allied forces, I came across one that listed the National Guard units from my home state of Maryland, and I had to turn away so that my children wouldn’t see the tears in my eyes.
My grandmother’s two brothers – both the sons of immigrants – had been drafted and sent to fight in Europe (though not in Normandy). One was left for dead on a battle field near to where his parents had emigrated from. He eventually survived (never to discuss any of it). Most Americans today do not know that our involvement in the War was controversial. Many Americans, especially on the Right, were against U.S. intervention, and many claimed FDR was a communist for taking us to war and thus benefiting the Russians. I cannot imagine my great uncles or their cousins as having gone to war enthusiastically to put their lives on the line. We forget that today.
We also forget, as the New York Times mentions, that our current president has been outspoken against those institutions – in particular NATO and the European Union – that have been absolutely fundamental in the unprecedented peace and stability that has been sustained in Europe since World War II and that so many of our young men fought for with their lives for 75 years ago today.
Any of you who know me, know that I am no fan of over-the-top worship of men in uniform or public displays of patriotism. But, please if you have the chance, travel to Normandy. Walk on that pristine beach at Omaha. There is nothing more moving than the peacefulness there today that was achieved by the sacrifices of so many young men 75 years ago. It is the most peaceful place that I have witnessed.