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Friday, June 6, 2014


Today June 6th is the anniversary of D-Day, the invasion of Normandy, the most important battle of World War II, one which led to the rout of the Nazis, the defeat of Hitler, and the surrender of Germany.

On June 6 1944 an offensive force of approximately 150,000 landed on Juno, Utah, and Omaha beaches and mounted a frontal assault on well-fortified and –defended German gun emplacements on the escarpments above.  American soldiers disembarked from their landing crafts, waded through the shallow tide to the beach and then took withering machine gun fire as they made their way to the escarpment, up, and over it.  Over 9000 lives were lost.


An invasion of this type – a frontal charge against the enemy across open ground – would be unthinkable today, and the number of casualties, although a fraction of the total military force assembled for the invasion, would be deemed totally unacceptable.  Normandy was like the trench warfare of the WWI, the pitched battles of the Civil War, or the battles of the Napoleonic wars.  In the Battle of Borodino between the French forces of Napoleon and the Russian troops of the Tsar, over 70,000 lives were lost in a single day.  The depictions in Tolstoy’s War and Peace are vivid and unthinkable.  The carnage was horrific, for there was no escaping the cannon fire, musketry, and mounted cavalry charges. 

Before the battle, men knew that their chances of dying or being severely mutilated were great; and yet they followed their officers, maintained discipline, held their ranks, and performed courageously.  Tolstoy wonders how and why thousands of men would willingly put themselves in the way of almost sure death.  While fealty to the Tsar and a patriotic fervor for Mother Russia, and social class may have played a role, there must have been more to it than that.  An inevitable congregation of combatants, muses Tolstoy, a result of thousands of interrelated events which drove Tsars and Emperors to war, generals to command, and soldiers to fight. 

Shakespeare wondered the same thing, and in Henry V describes a battle in France which Henry has led.  The King, committed to battle and to victory, but certainly troubled about a dubious claim to French lands, decides to disguise himself and hear what his men think.  The tell Henry that they are committed to fight – that is their lot in life – but their loyalty and patriotism have been diminished because of the dodgy reasons concocted by Henry.

Evolutionary biologists have suggested another reason.  The average life expectancy in 1414 when Henry fought a decisive battle against the French at Agincourt was 30; and at Borodino barely above 40.  Life for most soldiers was understood to be short, brutal, and unrewarding; and dying in battle, perhaps gloriously, was at least as good as dying a gruesome death from the plague, typhoid, dysentery, or rabies.  Moral philosophers have suggested that there were no compunctions about massing hundreds of thousands of men for battle in which many if not most would die.  These men would die anyway, perhaps within only a few years of the war’s end; so why spare the manpower?

This reason has less saliency in the wars of the 20th century when life expectancy rose significantly.  Eisenhower’s decision to throw 150,000 men at the enemy, then, took moral courage, a deep sense of right, and implacable will, and an unshakeable patriotism.

On the news today, I watched a number of reports which honored D-Day, but focused on ‘sacrifice’, loss, and ‘healing’.  Normandy was not about those things as war is today.  It was about total victory.  Eisenhower was moved to tears about the tragedy of so many young lives which would have to be extinguished; but never wavered for a moment over the necessity of sending them into battle. The defeat of the Nazis would not be simply the end of the war; but the elimination of an evil, destructive, and megalomaniacal regime which had world domination in its sights.

Today’s wars are different.  Victory is calculated not in Eisenhower’s terms – victory over the forces of evil, or the elimination of an inhumane scourge – but in the calculus of American lives first and foremost.  Is taking a Taliban stronghold worth the lives of American servicemen; and if so, how many? Part of the reason for this calculating, self-serving approach to war is the dubious nature of American wars.  Since we were never quite sure why we invaded Afghanistan – to avenge the deaths in the Twin Towers? To rid the world of the Taliban? To safeguard the rights of women – the commitment to victory in blood and bone was equivocal.  Victory was not to be had at any cost.

Iraq is no different.  If no one is sure why we are there, then there is at least some guilt felt by Pentagon planners when they devise a military strategy.  The questionable nature of the war in Vietnam was one thing, but Iraq and Afghanistan are far more dubious and morally suspect.

We will continue to lose our wars – and yes, we lost Afghanistan to the Taliban and Iraq to the forces of sectarianism – because we did know why we were fighting and therefore could not calculate the cost.  So, better to keep American soldiers out of harm’s way where possible.

On this day of remembrance, however, it is the victory of Allied forces in Normandy which should be celebrated – the moral courage, strategic brilliance, and absolute conviction of Eisenhower; the will of his generals, and the courage of those fighting men who faced certain death.   Without a decisive victory in Normandy, the war could have turned out very differently and very badly. We should not feel sorry for the veterans of that battle, nor mourn their loss.  They were soldiers doing their duty, and although neither Tolstoy, Shakespeare, or modern evolutionary philosophers can answer why men en masse through themselves in the way of blistering and deadly fire; they do.

We can muster emotion, shed tears, and express grief on Veterans Day or Memorial Day; but not on D-Day – a day of greatness.

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