A reflection on an iconic battlefield, the World War II generation, and the sacrifices made by combat veterans today
The Allied landing never seemed real, like life rather than history or cinema, until I visited the Normandy American Cemetery Memorial. The grounds are a serene expanse of 9,387 graves. The monuments are austere, a simple white cross marking most plots, a Star of David marking others. "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few," I thought, and I felt gratitude toward the dead. Many were killed around my age. I was 21 at the time.
The cemetery sits atop a bluff that looks out at the English Channel. A path winds gently down to Omaha Beach, a windswept expanse as tranquil and calming as any seascape, its sweep strangely reminiscent of the Southern California beaches where I grew up surfing and playing Frisbee football. As clouds scrolled across the sky the sea showed spangled spots of sunlight one moment, but appeared dull gray the next. I stowed my shoes and socks by a piece of driftwood, rolled up my pant legs, and waded knee deep, turning only as the dying breakers lapped against my thighs.
The cliffs rose up before me: on June 6, 1944, men my age stood here, I thought, among mines laid so they'd be blown to bits. They trudged to the shore under machine gun fire, rushing across this impossibly wide beach, as Germans fired down on them from atop that bluff. Novels depict young men yearning for the glory of war, but I stood on my nation's most glorious battlefield unsure I'd have mustered the physical courage to step off those transports. I imagined myself braving enemy fire to drag a wounded friend away from German strafing. As easily, I imagined lurking like a coward behind the transport, pretending to be wounded as others rushed forward.
On the path back to the cemetery quirks of landscape gripped my imagination. A large rock came alive as a place where men had taken cover. A narrow, brush-covered ravine seemed an ideal place for sniping at unsuspecting Germans.
Could I shoot?
Alone on the path, khaki pants soaked through with salt water, I wondered whether I'd be able to kill at close range a soldier for an army I believe to be history's most evil. I hoped I'd fire... but I couldn't be certain without my finger on the trigger, close enough to see his flaring nostrils and his fearful human eyes.
Atop the bluff, American flags stretched taut in the breeze. A young man of about 18 knelt by a graveside, and I reflected on the fact that these days young men between his age and mine are again fighting and dying. As a newspaper reporter, I spoke to some of their families. But for some reason, I never felt the reality of war quite as powerfully as when I trekked down to that iconic beach, and walked back up the bluffs to stand among the graves. Every time I think back on that trip its clarifying effects linger on. I am better able to appreciate the courage of our troops, more grateful for their heroism, and more conscious of the gulf between their sacrifice and mine.
Image credit: Flickr user Caspermoller