What is it about war stories that fires the imaginations of men? Most of us don’t particularly want to die, but there is something primal about facing death, testing your mettle and proving that you can stare down the worst possible outcome and make it through to the other side. And if you are fighting to defend the good, the true, and that which is worth protecting, sacrificing yourself paradoxically becomes more attractive.
I think about this every time we have a national day of remembrance about some war-time event here in the US. World War II hits close to home because it affected my family, particularly the men: my father’s father fought in Europe with the Army and his brother–a great-uncle I never knew–lost his life serving in the Navy, while my mother’s father spent the bulk of his childhood in Italian- and later Nazi-occupied Greece.
My grandmothers were affected too, living in times of rationing and sacrifice on the homefront, as did other relatives of mine and those of hundreds of millions of other Americans.
But D-Day is something special. Those men–not boys, but men–knew they were probably going to die and leapt out of those boats onto the beach at Normandy anyway.
The hope was that their brothers behind them would wrestle the beach from the Germans and finally begin the long-sought Allied counterattack into enemy territory. They didn’t bitch or moan or desert; I’m sure some did–they’re only human, after all–but deserters weren’t celebrated in those days.
We hold war vets in awe because they were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for you and for me. If you’ve ever seen footage from those boats on this day 72 years ago, you know how terrifying those silent minutes must have been. And when the shelling erupted and the gunfire spat out from those hills, we who weren’t there, who’ve never faced such evil, can only wonder: What would we have done? Would we have turned tail and fled, pants soiled with fear? Or would we have gripped our guns with sweaty palms, said our prayers, and stormed ahead, thoughts of family and country the fuel for the fight?
We’ll never know. But it’s important that we keep the memory of those who survived, and those who died, forever in our national consciousness. This country has done so many great things, and is capable of so many more. Black, white, whatever, we’re in his together. We haven’t always been, but we have been longer than not.
Don’t let anybody denigrate the valor of those who fought at Normandy, or in any other war. This is a great country, and one worth fighting for. If the Second World War taught us anything, it’s that we each do our part in our own way, whether we wear the uniform or remain at home. This too is why D-Day still matters. It’s not just something from a dusty old hostory book that happened to people who may as well be from another dimension. It’s a part of who we are.
You don’t say “Happy D-Day.” You learn, you teach, and you remember, but you don’t forget.
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