The ordeal of Omaha Beach

Professor David Gelernter of Yale University is a man of formidable learning with little patience for phonies. In his Wall Street Journal column “Too much, too late,” he detected a tidal wave of phoniness in the celebration of “the greatest generation” by those of us in the next generation. As a remedy for the phoniness he detected, Professor Gelernter prescribed the teaching of our children the major battles of the war, the bestiality of the Japanese, the attitude of the intellectuals, and the memoirs and recollections of the veterans. I would also suggest reflection on the subject of martial sacrifice. Do we deserve the sacrifice made on our behalf? What we can do to become worthy of it?

The battle of Omaha Beach that occurred sixty-five years ago today of course represents only a small part of Operation Overlord and the other battles that occurred on the Normandy beaches. But the story of Omaha Beach is deserving of special recognition.

S.L.A. Marshall was commissioned to serve as a combat historian with the Army in World War II. By 1960, he was already concerned that “the passing of the years and the retelling of the story have softened the horror of Omaha Beach on D Day.” In 1960 the Atlantic Monthly published Marshall’s essay on Omaha Beach based on the Normandy field notes he had compiled during his service as combat historian. Marshall’s essay “First wave at Omaha Beach” is now available online. The essay was the original source for some of the telling details that Stephen Ambrose used for his account of Omaha Beach in his book on D-Day. It remains part of the required reading for the course Professor Gelernter has prescribed, though it is subject to correctives such as the ones here and here.

Ronald Reagan’s fortieth-anniversary salute to “the boys of Pointe du Hoc” gets to the heart of it:

The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead, or on the next. It was the deep knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.

You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you.

In 1984 Reagan drew a contemporary lesson from the events of 1944:

In spite of our great efforts and successes, not all that followed the end of the war was happy or planned. Some liberated countries were lost. The great sadness of this loss echoes down to our own time in the streets of Warsaw, Prague, and East Berlin. The Soviet troops that came to the center of this continent did not leave when peace came. They’re still there, uninvited, unwanted, unyielding, almost forty years after the war. Because of this, allied forces still stand on this continent. Today, as forty years ago, our armies are here for only one purpose: to protect and defend democracy. The only territories we hold are memorials like this one and graveyards where our heroes rest.

We in America have learned bitter lessons from two world wars. It is better to be here ready to protect the peace, than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost.

Reagan concluded:

Here, in this place where the West held together, let us make a vow to our dead. Let us show them by our actions that we understand what they died for. Let our actions say to them the words for which Matthew Ridgway listened: “I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.”

Strengthened by their courage and heartened by their value [valor] and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died.

It doesn’t take much imagination to adapt Reagan’s lesson to the struggle we face today.

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