Back in 2008, my Dad and I spent several days traveling in Europe. We made our way by train from London to Berlin, where Dad had a conference to attend, and I spent a few days touring the city before making my way south across Switzerland and then back west to England.
Along the way, I kept a journal, and when I got back, I strung several of the entries together into a work I called “Vignettes from the Train.” Each of the pieces worked pretty well on its own, but they were too short to do anything with individually, and strung together, they felt disjointed, so the pieces of that journal have sat on my computer since then, waiting for me to figure out what, if anything, to do with them.
The most poignant part of the trip came shortly after leaving London, when we stopped in France for a couple of days, specifically the region of Normandy. History and World War II especially is one area where our interests cross paths, so we decided a trip to the location of the D-Day landings would be a good idea. This also produced some of my better writing from the trip, so since it’s Memorial Day (and the D-Day anniversary itself is less than a week away), I decided to post some of the excerpts. This first one is from Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery not far away.
Not everyone will agree with the impressions and thoughts I carried away from that day. But that day changed my outlook on the world, and I strongly believe that every American should visit Normandy at least once. And if any soldiers, or family members of soldiers, happen to read this quiet little blog, I salute you.
We stood on the sand, watching the ocean and imagining that day, sixty years ago, when the horizon would have been dotted with gray ships, and the beach would have been swarming with mines, landing craft, and soldiers, fighting and dying against the German defenses securely nestled in the high bluffs lining the shore.
Omaha Beach was the deadliest landing zone on D-Day, not least because of those bluffs. In addition, miscalculations by gunners and bomber pilots meant that the initial rounds of shelling had been directed too far inland, and most of the defenses were still intact. When the American soldiers landed here, it was literally a death trap. The order was almost given to pull back and land at Utah Beach to the West, but the Americans rallied and at the end of the day, at a cost of thousands of lives, the defenses had finally been overrun.
From the battlefield we went straight to the American Cemetery, where ten thousand American soldiers who gave their lives in Normandy and other parts of France are buried. It lies on a plot of land which has been given by France to the United States, so that the soldiers who gave their lives can rest forever in the soil of their native country.
As we entered, we passed a Visitor Center, and a row of plaques which praised the heroism and valor of the people who had died here. But out in the middle of that field, surrounded by a sea of white crosses stretching into the distance, it all felt strangely… hollow. Standing there, in the midst of all that death, it seemed blindingly, amazingly clear that this was a not a place to praise heroes… it was a place to mourn people. Each cross, each little dot in that overwhelming sea, represented a person. It represented a father, a husband, a son, a best friend, a family member. Each person here had a life, with hopes, and dreams, and an entire book of stories to be told, all of which ended suddenly, tragically, one day in 1944.
It was not for nothing. In the end, through the collective sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of individuals, a continent was liberated from the Nazis. Still, it was impossible not to stand there without being absolutely overwhelmed by the human cost of war. How many people died because of the evil, greed, and insanity of a few powerful German leaders? How many millions gave their lives to save the world from a few?
There’s another side to this story, too. Today, we are still generating new fields of white crosses. We praise the sacrifices of those who came before; we salute their heroism, and valor, and courage, but in this place, such praise rings empty, overwhelmed by the sheer scale of tragedy. We should know, by now, the horrible price that people pay during war. We should know, by now, that war should be the ultimate last resort. But we don’t. Because lives are still being cut short, children are still losing their parents, parents are still losing their children… and we will praise their valor, but we will not learn the lessons their deaths should teach.
I don’t know what the answer is. But I’m pretty sure the answer doesn’t lie in just not thinking about it, or in ignoring the horrible questions presented by this field of pristine white crosses.
On the Northern side of the cemetery, there is a short stone wall bordering the path. Looking over the wall, you can see Omaha Beach far below. This is a view that the German defenders would have had, and if you look hard enough, you can still see bits of wreckage jutting above the waves, far out in the ocean. How many people buried in this cemetery died trying to take that stretch of beach down there?
War, and history, stop being abstract in a place like this. If you strain hard enough, you can still hear the roar of the guns, and the shouts of the troops, and you can still smell the blood of the people who were killed. It’s a bleeding that’s still going on today; in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and who knows how many other countries all over the world, wherever the lives of human beings are cut short by war. It’s a bleeding that’s been going on since long, long before each of the people buried here said farewell to his family, not knowing if that goodbye would be the last.
The reality of that thought, and the reality of this place, are overwhelming. I stand still on the walk for a moment, struggling with the need to just sit down, curl up into a ball and cry. But our time here is up, and it’s time to climb back on the bus, and see what else there is to see.
The second excerpt is from the afternoon of the same day, when we visited a tiny Normandy chapel. I’ve forgotten its name, but the impressions from that visit stick with me as strong as Omaha Beach.
We enter a small, eleventh century chapel, sitting on the outskirts of a tiny French town. It seems pretty ordinary; there are probably a thousand chapels in France just like it. The difference is, in 1944, two American medics set up a medical station here, and saved the lives of dozens of soldiers and civilians alike. Even as the battle lines moved, and they found themselves in German-controlled territory, they stayed. The medics begged the Germans to let them continue their work, and they were allowed to do so. The fierce fighting destroyed the stained-glass windows, but those windows have since been replaced with new ones… commemorating not scenes from the Bible, but the heroism that happened right here.
One window has an Airborne Division logo; another has a paratrooper. A third has the American flag, the statue of liberty, and a red banner with a bible verse on it. The verse is John 15:13, printed in both English and French: “Greater love hath no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.”
Americans love to make jokes about the French, and probably vice versa. But something about being in that chapel makes all the animosity between America and France seem incredibly petty. Maybe it’s the broken floor tile in the middle of the chapel, where a shell fell through the roof but didn’t explode. Or maybe it’s our tour guide, Alain. He was living in America when the Iraq War broke out, and he saw the backlash against French non-involvement that included little insanities like the widespread adoption of the term “Freedom Fries”. He talks to us of how America and France are like family, and even though family members may argue now and then, in the end they are still family. France, he points out, is the one country that has been allied with America since the days of the Revolution. Our countries may have their disagreements, but there’s a deep and binding brotherhood there, too, and it’s on proud display in the stained glass windows of that little chapel.
Near the door there’s a pew with a dark red splotch. It’s a bloodstain from one of the wounded soldiers who was treated here. Instead of cleaning it, the villagers sealed over it, preserving it as a memorial. Standing there, I don’t think I’ll ever make a joke about the French again, unless it’s about their unwillingness to take credit cards.
Thanks again to the members of the Armed Forces who put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of their country, their family, and their comrades. I fervently hope the day will come when the bleeding stops, and you don’t have to any more.