History

Appreciating D-Day’s 70th anniversary

Appreciating D-Day’s 70th anniversary

When Dwight D. Eisenhower’s former executive assistant was asked about the General’s use of the “D” in “D-Day,” his response was perfunctory. Ike used it merely to indicate the “designated day” for his army to advance as ordered. D-Day in Europe followed other “D-Days” in Sicily, North Africa, Italy, and the Pacific. But this one, of course, was much more than that.

Next week marks 70 years since the Allied armada emerged from that fog-laden English Channel, weighed anchor, and disgorged thousands of young men onto Normandy’s beaches. Many never made off their boats. Seven decades on, June 6, 1944 remains an extraordinary feat during an extraordinary time.

I recently attended the premiere of a new IMAX movie about the battle. Tom Brokaw, who narrates the film, moderated a panel discussion. Among the participants was a wiry Texan, member of the 82nd Airborne, who parachuted into occupied France, with orders to capture and hold key bridges at the Merderet River. He landed in an old cemetery. When the audience chuckled, he smiled and said that was better than landing in a tree, steeple, or flooded field! He looked up and saw a German soldier.  Brokaw asked him what he did. “I shot him.”

Again, a simple response, but again, much more than that.

We classical liberals are a diverse lot. We annoy establishments both Republican and Democratic. And when it comes to wars and conflict and soldiers, our perspectives become messy. We endorse national self-defense but bristle at acting like the world’s policeman. We recognize the importance of alliances but see snippets of imperial hubris in our foreign policy and international military presence. We will always be skeptical of using national power to address problems.

But sometimes it’s good to stop the noise and reflect. Tom Brokaw commented that the importance of D-Day cannot be overstated. And he’s right. The upcoming D-Day anniversary should foster appreciation about a time we did something right. This is neither regurgitated history nor misplaced patriotism. That day, 156,000 men, without a backup plan or the benefit of modern weapon systems converged along 50 miles of French coastline. By staying on the beach that day, they saved the world.

Today’s military leaders exude a bravado that their troops will always succeed. In contrast, D-Day’s outcome was in doubt. Eisenhower drafted a letter to be released if the invasion failed. But the Allies succeeded in part because their soldiers and junior officers could improvise and innovate. Their commanders knew that for such a massive endeavor, they could not plan for every problem or mistake. The Americans had learned lessons from their failures in North Africa and Italy. It was quite simple: Adapt or die.

The Germans, on the other hand, were stymied by their own rigid command-and-control system. Adolf Hitler had given orders that morning not to be disturbed, and so his commanders froze, failing to coordinate their defense and provide critical reinforcements. This lesson still applies to us today.

There is nostalgia of late for that era. Perhaps it’s because the World War II generation is dying at a rapid pace. But perhaps it’s something else. Perhaps we pine for the days when policy battle lines were black and white just like that grainy World War II footage.

Instead we have blended colors of Vietnam and the Middle East, electronic surveillance, secret drone strikes, Gitmo, and shadowy special ops. In the domestic arena, we have obscene budget deficits, bailouts for private industry, citizens dependent on taxpayer largesse, and hundreds of federal agencies that did not even exist that early 1944 morning. Perhaps we hope for a time when our political leaders understand that true power is not just knowing when to wield the sword decisively and firmly, but also when to wisely keep it sheathed.

Years ago, I befriended an elderly gentleman on the tennis court. Ever the competitor, Roger viewed our matches as friendly games, but he played to win. One day I used the Web to find his contact information, which I’d misplaced. Not only was he a World War II vet, but he was one of the U.S. Rangers who famously—and improbably—scaled Pont de Hoc to destroy the guns sweeping the Utah and Omaha landing sites. I said nothing the next time we met on the court. It was not something he was interested in discussing.

Next week, though, I’ll tell him “well done.” It doesn’t matter if the world was simpler then. It doesn’t matter if today’s world is more complex hues. Honor and respect still matter.

But Roger, I’m still not going to let you beat me.

Lawson Bader is president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). 

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