D-Day, 75th Anniversary

With right-wing populism resurgent, with the experience of the 1930s and 1940s fading out of living memory, with a new existential crisis already in process that calls for extraordinary collective action, it is important to take opportunities to remember history. There are few better occasions to do so than a prominent anniversary of a monumental effort, one that even the willfully ignorant and hateful are still not allowed to ignore or dismiss.

75 years ago, right about the time this comment was posted, tens of thousands of young men, many of them still teenagers, were jumping out of airplanes into a European darkness that, unusually, was only deepened by the time of night. Three hours later, many tens of thousands more troops were landing on the beaches of Normandy in the face of bloody and horrific odds and a storm of steel and fire – a united front of liberal democracies against fascism.

Andy Rooney, a journalist who covered the invasion, wrote one of the finest short pieces on the topic, a model of clean and honest writing that manages to balance a lack of sentimentality with a deep appreciation of the sacrifice involved. If you haven’t read it before, it’s worth your time today.

If you are young and not really clear what D-Day was, let me tell you, it was a day unlike any other. There have been only a handful of days since the beginning of time on which the direction the world was taking has been changed for the better in one 24-hour period by an act of man. June 6, 1944 was one of them.

What the Americans, the British, and the Canadians were trying to do was get back a whole continent that had been taken from its rightful owners by Adolf Hitler’s German army. It was one of the most monumentally unselfish things one group of people ever did for another.

We all have days of our lives that stand out from the blur of days that have gone by, and the day I came ashore on Utah Beach, four days after the initial invasion, is one of mine.

As we approached the French coast, there were small clouds of smoke and sudden eruptions as German artillery blindly lobbed shells over the hills behind the beach. They were hoping to hit U.S. troops or some of the massive amount of equipment piled up on the shore.

Row on row of dead American soldiers were laid out on the beach just above the high-tide mark where it turned into weedy clumps of grass. They were covered with olive-drab blankets, just their feet sticking out at the bottom, their GI boots sticking out. I remember their boots - all the same on boys all so different.

No one can tell the whole story of D-Day because no one knows it. Each of the 60,000 men who waded ashore that day knew a little part of the story too well.

To them, the landing looked like a catastrophe. Each knew a friend shot through the throat, shot through a knee. Each knew names of five hanging dead on the barbed wire in the water 20 off shore, three who lay unattended on the stony beach as the blood drained from holes in their bodies.

They saw whole tank crews drowned when the tanks rumbled off the ramps of their landing craft and dropped into 20 feet of water.

There were heroes here no one will ever know because they’re dead. The heroism of others is known only to themselves.

Across the Channel in Allied headquarters in England, the war directors, remote from the details of death, were exultant. They saw no blood, no dead, no dying. From the statisticians’ point of view, the invasion was a success. The statisticians were right. They always are - that’s the damned thing about it.

On each visit to the Beaches over the years, I’ve wept. It’s impossible to keep back the tears as you look across the rows of markers and think of the boys under them who died that day.

Even if you didn’t know anyone who died, your heart knows something your brain does not - and you weep.

If you think the world is selfish and rotten, go to the cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer overlooking Omaha Beach. See what one group of men did for another group on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

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I hate the moniker “the greatest generation” because of what it does to hobble all generations that come after, but sincerely there has never been a generation that gave so much so selflessly. I am in awe of what they achieved, even if no individual was aware what they were capable of collectively. Hat tip, and gratitude to everyone who served.

Oh and to that WWII vet who I met on the streets of Brooklyn who said “hitler was right,” you dishonor all those that served, so fuck you.

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