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D-Day: Fiftieth Anniversary of June 6, 1944

4 minute read
Lance Morrow

The anniversary will be a state occasion. Queen Elizabeth will cross the channel in the Royal Yacht, Britannia. Other chiefs of the old Alliance—Reagan and Mitterrand and Trudeau, the Queen of The Netherlands, the King of the Belgians—will assemble for the ceremonies before some of them go on to an economic summit in London. They will fly in helicopters over the famous beaches—Omaha, Utah and the rest. They will inspect the surf through which the invaders struggled 40 years ago, young amphibians buffeted by waves and torn by crossfires. Their landfall, in a chaos of metal and smoke and dead bodies, began the end of the thousand-year Reich.

Ordinary Americans and Englishmen and Canadians and others, now in late middle age, will come as well. They will wander over the pastoral killing ground. They will search in the cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer for the graves of friends they fought beside. They will think of themselves singing as they set off from England, “Glory, glory, what a hell of a way to die…” They will remember exactly the spot where they were pinned down by German machine guns, or where a shell blast sent a truck pinwheeling. They will go up again to Pointe du Hoc and shake their heads again in wonder at the men who climbed that sheer cliff while Germans fired down straight into their faces. The veterans will take photographs. But the more vivid pictures will be those fixed in their minds, the ragged, brutal images etched there on the day when they undertook to save European civilization.

The ceremonies in Normandy will celebrate the victory and mourn the dead. They will also mourn, almost subliminally, a certain moral clarity that has been lost, a sense of common purpose that has all but evaporated. Never again, perhaps, would the Allies so handsomely collaborate. The invasion of Normandy was a thunderously heroic blow dealt to the evil empire. Never again, it may be, would war seem so unimpeachably right, so necessary and just. Never again, perhaps, would American power and morality so perfectly coincide.

For one thing, it is difficult for history, more than once every few centuries, to invent a villain like Hitler and then propel him to such enormous power. The bad guys are rarely so horrible—although this century has been rather richly cast. Normandy in later years became an almost unconscious reply to the pacifist view of war, for Operation Overlord led to the final destruction of a tyranny that was deemed more terrible than war itself.

Besides, the terms of war changed in the world. After Normandy and Eisenhower’s “Crusade in Europe” came Hiroshima, and then the cold war and the pervasive, sinister presence of the Bomb that has made crusades more problematic. If a confrontation like Normandy were to transpire now between superpowers, a struggle to the death, it might be called Armageddon.

Normandy was, of course, a joint Allied operation. But the Americans, from Eisenhower down, dominated the drama. The invasion, in a way, was a perfect expression of American capabilities: vast industrial energy and organizational know-how sent out into the world on an essentially knightly mission—the rescue of an entire continent in distress. There was an aspect of redemption in the drama, redemption in the Christian sense. The Old World, in centuries before, had tided westward to populate the New. Now the New World came back, out of the tide, literally, to redeem the Old. If there has sometimes been a messianic note in American foreign policy in postwar years, it derives in part from the Normandy configuration. America gave its begotten sons for the redemption of a fallen Europe, a Europe in the grip of a real Satan with a small mustache. The example of Hitler still haunts the Western conscience and the vocabulary of its policy (Munich and appeasement, for example). But when the U.S. has sought to redeem other lands—South Viet Nam, notably—from encroaching evil, the drama has proved more complex. The war in Viet Nam, in fact, had many Americans believing that the evil resided in themselves.

So the experience of Normandy, bloody as it was, has a kind of moral freshness in the American imagination, a quality of collective heroic virtue for which the nation may be wistful. Liberation meant something very wonderful and literal then. It had not acquired the cynical, even Orwellian overtone one hears in, say, “the liberation of Saigon.” And there were things that seemed worth dying for without question. Today the questions always seem to overshadow the commitment. The morals of sacrifice, so clear then, are more confusing now.

—By Lance Morrow

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