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June 4, 2007

Gaining Some Perspective in Normandy


The first thing you notice, of course, is the headstones. There are just so many. Thousands upon thousands of markers for young American men, put down in the primes of their lives while serving their country. You see the rows and rows of crosses (and Jewish stars), followed by some trees, followed by . . . more crosses.


On our honeymoon in France last week, I persuaded my wife to join me on a day trip to France’s Normandy region. Throughout the bus trip, we traveled to various locations that were instrumental in the Allies’ dislodgment of the Nazis’ French occupation.


We saw Bayeux, the first town in France liberated by the Allies. We visited several of the beaches where Allied soldiers landed, and a museum commemorating the events of June 1944. We went to the cemetery, near Omaha Beach, where thousands of U.S. servicemen are buried.


What struck me about that cemetery, which we all of course remember from the beginning and ending of “Saving Private Ryan,” was just how many Americans lost their lives, in such a short period of time, in defeating the most evil political force of the past 500 years. And, that most of them were around 20 years old.


The bodies of 9,387 Americans are interred at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, and burials began on June 8, 1944, just days after D-Day on June 6. That number does not include the many soldiers whose bodies were brought back to the U.S. for burial, nor does it include those killed during the various other theaters of the war.


In World War II, America faced an enemy unlike anything it had faced before or since, and defeating that enemy required sacrifice – from massive numbers of people, across all sorts of lines – that appears beyond what our nation is prepared for today.


Being at that cemetery just made me recognize how ludicrous and meaningless so much of today’s political discourse is. It just fell so far beyond the constant, bad-faith arguments from both the left and right over which side does or doesn’t “support the troops.” Or the juvenile, embarrassing campaign against France in the U.S. press a few years back, which actually led to “he looks French” being offered up as a key reason to defeat the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party in 2004.


On right-wing blogs lately, a graph has been making the rounds – sort of a final grasping-at-straws for those who continue to back the misadventure in Iraq. It lists the number of American soldiers killed per year in the Iraq and Vietnam wars – with the latter, of course, being a much higher number.


But really, so what? Just because it’s smaller than those of World War II or Vietnam, is the number of soldiers killed in Iraq somehow insignificant or meaningless? Did those families not lose sons, daughters, fathers and mothers?


Most of all, being at Normandy brought my thoughts back to someone I know here in Philadelphia. My wife’s grandfather is himself a World War II veteran, who also served in Europe and crossed the English Channel into France, albeit not until the year after D-Day. After the war he returned to the States, became an engineer and had four children and 13 grandchildren, one of whom is my wife, Rebecca. At our wedding, the previous weekend, I had seen him beaming with pride, as he had at two previous family weddings, as he got his picture taken with all of his grandchildren.


In Normandy, I thought of all of the young men from that war – thousands upon thousands of them – who never made it home, and never had grandchildren or even children. That, even more than their young lives, was what was left on that battlefield all those years ago.


America has done an amazing job, more than 60 years later, of properly saluting its World War II veterans, and those who lost their lives in the conflict. The government recognizes them, and amazing movies and books are produced about them. I can only hope that, a half century from now, the sacrifice of those currently in Iraq is treated with the same appreciation.


© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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