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The ordeal of Omaha Beach

Professor David Gelernter of Yale University is a man of formidable learning with little patience for phonies. He has detected a tidal wave of phoniness in the celebration of “the greatest generation,” as he wrote in his 2004 Wall Street Journal column “Too much, too late.”

As a remedy for the phoniness he detected, Professor Gelernter prescribed the teaching to 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. Complying with Professor Gelernter’s prescription, I am currently reading the late Dartmouth English Professor Harold Bond’s moving Return to Cassino.

Professor Gelernter failed to assign a paper topic for the course he has prescribed. I would assign an essay on the subject of sacrifice. Do we deserve the sacrifice made on our behalf? What we can do to become worthy of it? Is the disparity between those who sacrifice and those who reap the benefit too great to bridge?

The battle of Omaha Beach that occurred sixty-nine 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.” That year the Atlantic Monthly published Marshall’s essay on Omaha Beach based on the field notes he had compiled during his service as combat historian. The essay — “First wave at Omaha Beach” — is available online. Marshall’s essay was the original source for some of the telling details that Stephen Ambrose lifted for his account of Omaha Beach in his book on D-Day.

Please read it. Then print it out and save it for your kids as part of the required reading for the course Professor Gelernter has prescribed. (First posted in 2004, updated in 2013.)

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