Right now here in France, it’s early in the morning of June 6. 70 years – to the hour- since the start of the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy. Having recently taken a trip with my Dad, and my son to Normandy to see a lot of the WWII sites – this idea of ‘properly’ remembering D-Day – and events like it – has been on my mind a bit.
So how does one go about Remembering D-Day?
It’s 70 years since thousands of Allied troops landed on the beaches that spread out in front of the sea-side towns along the shores of Normandy. These coastal villages which were used to welcoming tourists to their beaches, and their fishermen back from the sea were now welcoming a liberating army on their beaches and welcoming in from the sea the largest assault ever put together in modern military history. There is no way to avoid the signs of the war in these towns along the Norman coast, it is simply impossible to ignore what happened here in the days and months surrounding June 6, 1944. Code names like Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno and Sword are tied to a material reality here. They are real places, just across from someone’s house, a place where kids fly their kites, some farmers field. The memories still seem so fresh in the year-round flying of US, UK & Canadian flags in the streets of these French towns. Yet when you stand on the beach, it almost seems so impossible that these events actually took place, that it seems they must have happened a very long time ago indeed.
One thing that struck me while we were in Normandy was exactly this juxtaposition that a time frame of seven decades seems to create. On one hand, it doesn’t really seem that long ago. Find someone who is at least 80 years-old, and they will likely remember it well. Go inside a 70 year old building – it doesn’t seem terribly antiquated. 1944 was the year George Lucas, Ban Ki-Moon, Lorne Michaels, Michael Douglas, Gerhard Schröder, and Jimmy Page were all born – and they don’t seem all that old.
However, 70 years is long enough to mean that neither me, my son, nor my father have ever faced the brutal reality that is warfare.
As we stood on the coast of Normandy where so many young men lost their lives, and specifically on Juno Beach where the toll on the Canadians was so high – it was definitely cause for reflection. There we were – three generations – lived (so far) in peace. Fully aware that it was – to a large degree – thanks to the sacrifices of those who did experience hell-on-earth in that very place where we were standing. For us, the harsh reality is that remembering d-day is something that we can chose to do – or not.
While we were in Normandy, there was something that I saw quite a bit on memorials, cemeteries, graves and other places, that just seemed to rub me the wrong way:
“TO OUR GLORIOUS DEAD”
I understand wanting to honour the sacrifice of those who felt compelled to put their own lives on the line for what they believed was the struggle of their nation, their society. However, I’m not sure I feel that a teenage boy having his body blown apart by a farm-kid from the neighbouring country is really “GLORIOUS.”
Then I decided that I should- perhaps just this once- know what I’m talking about. So I looked up the word for the real definition:
glorious |ˈglɔːrɪəs| adjective ~having, worthy of, or bringing fame or admiration
So perhaps, glorious is an appropriate word – even if it doesn’t feel like it is.
So, how does one properly ‘remember’ an event like D-Day?
How do you balance respect for the individual, order-following soldiers who died fighting on the winning side, without demonizing the individual, order-following soldiers who died fighting on the losing side?
How do you recall battles fought, won and lost, lives saved and ended, and the absolute struggle of human conflict when it has been elevated to the level of armed hostility – without glorifying war itself?
Love the soldiers – hate the war?
When we were in the Juno Beach centre, we were wandering through, taking in the exhibits, and an older gentleman was sort of just standing next to me, saw Jonah and asked if ‘the lad was interested by the war.’ I think I replied something like, “well, not interested in the war, but I feel that he needs to learn about it.’
The man said something like “well that’s good – because we can’t ever let it happen again” and then he turned and continued on.
We finished up with the museum and went outside as we had signed up for a guided tour of a bunker which had (fairly recently) been discovered under the beach. The tour was lead by a Canadian university student who was working at the Juno centre, and as we started he said “I just want to give a special welcome to Mr Hyde, a veteran of D-Day.”
That man was in the Royal Air Force. He had manned the guns onboard an RAF bomber that came in to support the Canadian and British troops who landed at Juno. It was very strange to think about what this place must mean to him. What memories does he hold, that he can never forget, even the ones he wants to? We were touring a bunker that was used to collect intelligence and co-ordinate the counter-attack on the plane he was in. For me, D-Day is an event in modern history. For him, it was probably the one day – the few hours – of his life that will stand out for ever. For him, remembering d-day, is not an option, because forgetting it is not possible.
I recently saw a series of pictures from the beaches of Normandy, a set of ‘then and now’ showing historical photos, contrasted to the same vantage point now. (NOTE: stop reading NOW and go look at a nice interactive one here, and a really big set here -they are really, very interesting)
When I look at the pictures showing sunbathers lying on the beaches that a few generations ago were literally soaked with human blood, I must admit that it feels like poorly behaved kids yelling and playing in a graveyard. But then, I suppose in some way, that’s what they were fighting for. They sacrificed for us to enjoy the chance to sit on the sand and enjoy a day at the beach. They wanted their countrymen to be free, to live in peace and security. You can’t lay on the beach if you fear an invasion.
So how does one remember D-Day?
I guess I’m left with: let’s enjoy things like a day at the beach – but never forgetting what price was paid for us to be able to do so.
And perhaps more importantly, let’s honour the request of Mr. Hyde and all those like him – and never let it happen again.