This is a re-post of something I wrote several years ago after visiting Normandy just before the 70 anniversary of D-Day. It’s gotten more reactions than any post I’ve written, and I feel it still reflects my feelings on a day like today.
Right now, here in France, it’s early morning 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 see a lot of the WWII sites, this idea of ‘properly’ remembering D-Day and events like it, has been on my mind.
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, used to welcoming tourists to their beaches, and their fishermen back from the sea now welcomed a liberating army on their beaches as the largest assault ever put together in modern military history arrived on their shores. There is no way to avoid the signs of the war in these towns along the Norman coast, 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 with year-round flying of US, UK & Canadian flags in the streets of these French towns. Yet when you stand on the beach, it seems almost impossible that these events took place, or if they did is must have happened a very long time ago.
One thing that struck me in Normandy was this juxtaposition that a time frame of seven decades can create. On one hand, it doesn’t really seem that long ago. Find someone at least 80 years old, and they will likely remember it well. My own mother was in elementary school. 1944 was the year George Lucas, Ban Ki-Moon, Lorne Michaels were born, Jimi Hendrix and George Harrison, Steven Hawking
However, 70 years without our nation being involved in such a massive conflict is long enough 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 cause for reflection. There we were, three generations, lived (so far) in peace. Fully aware that to a large degree this privilege is due to the sacrifices of those who did experience hell-on-earth in that very place where we were standing. For us the harsh truth is that remembering D-Day is something we can choose to do, or not. For any who took part in the struggle here, or any battle anywhere, forgetting will not ever be an option.
While we were in Normandy, there was something I saw on a lot of memorials, cemeteries, graves and other places, that kind of rubbed me the wrong way:
“TO OUR GLORIOUS DEAD”
I understand wanting to honour the sacrifice of those who felt compelled to put their lives on the line for the struggle of their nation. However, I’m not sure I can agree a teenage boy having his body blown apart by a farm-kid from the neighbouring country is “GLORIOUS.”
I decided I should, perhaps just this once, know what I’m talking about. So I looked up the 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. Worthy of admirationseems about the least we can say about those who died to honor their memories.
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 human conflict elevated to the level of armed hostility without glorifying war itself?
“Love the soldiers – hate the war?”
When we were wandering through the Juno Beach centre, taking in the exhibits, an older gentleman was standing next to me, saw Jonah and asked with an English accent if ‘the lad was interested by the war.’ I think I replied something like, “well, not interested in the war, but I feel 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 working at the Juno centre. As he started his presetntation, he said “I just want to give a special welcome to Mr Hyde, a veteran of D-Day.”
That man from inside the museum was a D-Day vet from 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 impossible to imagine 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 a historical event. 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. Me, my son and my Father were struggling to imagine what it must have been like that morning. For him, I’m sure there are more days when he struggles to forget.
I recently saw a series of ‘then and now’ photos, contrasting the same place. (NOTE: stop reading NOW and go look at this nice interactive one here, and a really big set here. Seriously – go look, they are fascinating)
When I look at the pictures showing sunbathers lying on the beaches that a few generations ago were literally soaked with human blood, it feels like poorly behaved kids yelling and playing in a graveyard. People relaxing, seemingly without a care in the world. But in some way, isn’t that part of the freedom those soldiers 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. We – Canadians, French, Americas, British, and Germans and so many more enjoy a kind of liberty that was very hard won.
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 forget the price was paid for us to do so.
More importantly, let’s honour the request of Mr. Hyde and all those like him – and never let it happen again.