On June 6, 1944 the United States and its allies launched the largest air and sea armada in world history. The purpose of this mission was clear: liberate Europe from the grip of Nazi despotism.
The landings on the Normandy beaches were successful because of the unprecedented sacrifice among the landing forces. American soldiers leaving their amphibious landing crafts measured their life expectancy in minutes. In the first hour of battle hundreds lost their lives and in succeeding waves thousands were killed as the beaches at Omaha and Utah were soaked with the blood of young men in their teens and early twenties.
At Pointe du Hoc, Army Rangers scaled the sheer cliffs on rope ladders. When one was killed by German bullets another stepped on the precarious rungs. Of the 224 Rangers who scaled those cliffs only 90 survived, but as historians observed rarely in history has there been such a display of courage, fortitude and sacrifice.
This was the beginning of a great epoch in history that led ultimately to the defeat of Hitler’s Germany. But history has a way of describing the big picture and leaving out the tales of individual bravery by young men who a year or two earlier were playing high school basketball, working on a farm or applying to college. History called their number and they responded. Tom Brokaw called them “America’s greatest generation.”
It is hard to know if they made history or history demanded heroic deeds from them. Perhaps it was a little of both. But standing in the cemetery at the Normandy Beach and observing row after row of those who gave their lives for a cause greater than themselves, I am humbled by those who died so future generations could live freely.
There is another thought that crossed my mind in this crowded necropolis. I don’t understand how anyone, much less the president of the United States, could apologize for American actions abroad in the last century or this one. With all the mistakes and miscalculations, there has never been a force for good more notable than the United States’ military.
Ask the citizens of Caen, Bayeux, St. Lo, Archante what they thought about G.I.’s in their midst. Residents of these towns were saved from enslavement by Americans who fought Panzer divisions in their backyards. Generals Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley left devastation in their advancing wake, but they brought with them armies that yielded freedom and set the stage for a level of prosperity Europe has enjoyed ever since.
It is difficult for most Europeans to remember the past. After all, who wants to remember an uncle that bailed you out of a jam? Here in Normandy, however, conditions are different. Citizens of this region were there on the front line. Omaha Beach is Bloody Omaha to them and the American flag still stands as a reminder.
This June, the 65th anniversary of D-Day will be celebrated. For most Americans and most Europeans it is simply another day in late spring. Some octogenarians may remember that fateful day when the liberation of Europe began. Many, however, knowing nothing about history will be disinclined to pay any special attention to the day.
I recall seeing Steven Spielberg’s film “Saving Private Ryan” in which, with extraordinary verisimilitude, the director recaptured the events at Omaha Beach. As the film began and the bloodshed was evident, a young lady seated behind me asked her friend “what war do you think this is?”
For the fallen heroes lying in their graves this ignorance is lamentable. Perhaps it explains why President Obama can apologize and apologize again and many Americans can applaud, or at the very least, accept his gesture for foreign consumption. I cannot. I am appalled that we can ignore, forget or rationalize away American heroism.
I don’t think we should ever apologize for what the United States has done to extricate millions from the yoke of totalitarian control. It is not arrogance to recall the limbs that were shattered and the bodies broken to set history on the course of democracy, imperfect as it is.
Before President Obama stands supinely before the G-20 again and engages in a form of national self-flagellation, I would urge him to stand amid the crosses and stars in Normandy cemetery and recall the sacrifices made by those youngsters so that he could be president of the United States and breathe an unadorned version of freedom.