The ordeal of Omaha Beach

Professor David Gelernter of Yale University is a man of formidable learning with little patience for phonies. He has previously detected a tidal wave of phoniness in the celebration of “the greatest generation” by folks with a profile that eerily resembles mine: “Too much, too late.”

As a remedy for the phoniness he detected, Professor Gelernter prescribed the teaching of our children the major battles of the war, the cruelty of the Japanese, the attitude of the intellectuals, and the memoirs and recollections of the veterans. 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-two 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 is one of the superb military historians of the twentieth century. He 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 unforgettable essay (subscribers only) on Omaha Beach based on the Normandy field notes he had compiled during his service as combat historian: “First wave at Omaha Beach.” 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 excellent book on D-Day.

The Atlantic has unfortunately restricted Marshall’s article to subscribers only. For a dissenting view on the article, with additional information of interest, see “Marshall attacks!” at War Chronicle. I don’t have the knowledge necessary to sort out the issues, but would appreciate hearing from readers who do. Berkeley Professor J.W. Morris also notes this article on Marshall at History News Network.


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