Having recently visited the beaches at Normandy, it is not possible to pass this day on the calendar without paying, what I know, even though I haven’t written it yet, will be an inadequate tribute to the million-and-a half Allied “citizen soldiers” – meaning they were regular people, just like us – who found it inside themselves to take the first heroic steps to liberate Europe and, in less than a year, put an end to the Nazis.
I stood at the top of the bluffs looking down at the ocean, and I felt – there’s a Yiddish word for it, a “shtoch”, which means a piercing jab to the heart. (I had a similar reaction overlooking the battlefields at Gettysburg, though the intensity was different, as “D-Day” took place just months before I was born, and, I had once met a man – Dr. M’s uncle – who had personally participated. As old as I am, I cannot say the same about Gettysburg.)
I don’t know how people can fight – because I can’t fight. Maybe if I’d been around back then, and I didn’t have flat feet, a wonky left eye and a heart murmur, I might have felt differently about the matter, and signed up. Because everyone else was. Because girls liked a man in uniform (and had less generous feelings about a man out of uniform.) Because terrible people had to be stopped. Because Jews were perishing in camps. Who knows?
But maybe then, in that context, I’d have found myself jumping in, and doing my part. Though it would less likely have been in combat than in shows. (A good thing, because my fantasy was that, assigned to the battlefield, my whimpering would have given away our position.)
You can speculate, of course – and I frequently do – but it’s probably unproductive to judge what you’d have done in a time you were personally not living in. As they, often accurately, post mortem about an anecdote that falls flat, “I guess you just had to be there.” Since we weren’t, we will never know for sure.
What we do know for sure is that ordinary human beings got out of those boats and battled their way up the beaches. And as a consequence, nine thousand of them lie buried alongside their buddies in a nearby cemetery. (The bodies of countless others, reclaimed by their families, are interred closer to home.)
In my Memorial Day post – which, had I known I’d be writing this I’d have saved it for today indicating how little premeditation is involved in this enterprise – I wrote about how many times new instruments of destruction were invented – “in the hopes of?”, I don’t know about that; they probably just wanted to annihilate the enemy – but at least there was this, possibly rationalizing, belief that these unanswerable weapons would inevitably mean “the end of war know it.”
INVENTOR OF THE CROSSBOW: “This thing pierces armor. It’s over!”
They were wrong. The Gatling Gun. TNT. Submarines. Tanks. Attacks from the skies. The Atomic Bomb. All hailed as, “Bye-bye, war”…
It never happened. We’re still sending people overseas, and bringing them home in body bags.
And it wasn’t just weapons that portended the termination of hostilities forever. You know what was touted as a permanent war eradicator?
This was the Founding Fathers’ thinking, and everybody knows they were right about everything. The Founders’ idea for everlasting peace was a world where people of good faith engaged in international commerce, and would, as a consequence, never think of obliterating a customer.
The following comes from Revolutionary Characters by Gordon Wood.
A world of republican states would encourage a different kind of diplomacy, a peace-loving diplomacy, not one based on the brutal struggle for power of conventional diplomacy but on the natural concert of commercial interests of people of the various nations… If the people of the various nations were left alone to exchange goods freely among themselves, then it was hoped international politics would become republicanized, pacified and ruled by commerce alone.
Yeah, well that didn’t work either. Wars over oil (never ending in the Middle East), wars over bananas – it happened in Guatemala – proved international enterprise was no more the answer than accelerating “Boom-boom.” If war were “that man”, as in South Pacific, we seem to be utterly helpless in being able to get “that man” out of our hair.
All I can think is that somebody likes war, and they’re pushing really hard in the other direction. How else to comprehend war’s intractable persistence? There has to be a reason for its continuing, because, from a popularity standpoint, I do not see getting people to go to war to be a “slam-dunk” kind of a sell.
“Would you like to engage in an activity that is truly exhilarating, but there’s a good chance you’ll get killed or severely disfigured?”
“No, thanks. I think I’ll just skip the death and disfigurement, and take a ride on a scary rollercoaster.”
Remember the line in the sixties. “What if there was a war, and nobody came to it?”
It seemed kind of pie-in-the-sky. But, as described above, it’s not as if levelheaded grownups had not considered the “end of war” issue themselves. (Nobody would ever confuse the Founding Fathers with wild-eyed hippies. Except, maybe, the English.)
History has shown that the weapons inventors didn’t end wars. Nor did the businessmen, trusting to virtue and self-interest. What the heck, why not give apathy a try?
We can’t seem to shake this thing. Do or don’t, however, I at least, will tip my cap to the people who fought. Especially in World War II, which, with respect to the service and sacrifice of the veterans of Korea, Viet Nam, Panama, Grenada, Iraq and Afghanistan was the only war that came close to making sense.
Way to go, you guys. Whoever of you are left.
As long as I’m left – and I know I am not alone – you will never be forgotten.