The ordeal of Omaha Beach

Seventy years ago today our fellow Americans and their allies stormed the beaches of Normandy to vanquish the Nazis’ supposed thousand-year regime. In his D-Day message to the troops, General Eisenhower declared: “We accept nothing less than full victory!”

The landing was necessary if the war was to be won. In 1984 President Reagan called it “a giant undertaking unparalleled in human history.” Yet success was far from inevitable. Eisenhower tucked a second message away to use in case of failure: “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

We seek to remember the fallen and honor all those living and dead who performed their duty that day. They performed fearsome tasks with awe-inspiring fortitude.

At the same time we also seek to guard against the tidal wave of phoniness that Professor David Gelernter has detected 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, this year I am working on Rick Atkinson’s brilliant Liberation Trilogy. Last year I read 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 seventy 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 & 2014.)

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