Normandy, France -
It was the battle that made them the “Greatest Generation.”
Seventy years ago last month hundreds of thousands of Allied troops, most of them Americans, landed on the beaches of Calvados and broke the Nazi stranglehold on Europe. It was therefore one of the epic battles in history, one that changed the course of history, and did not at all have a guaranteed outcome. The loss of life was horrific, the casualty rate enormous, but the planning, and especially the dedication and sacrifice, are worth recalling these days – when those days seem to most Americans to be ancient history. The lessons for the courageous Jews of Israel again suffering from the genocidal ambitions of their Islamic haters should also be noted.
I spent a few days this week in Normandy, touring the battlefields at Omaha and Utah beaches (where US forces landed) and Pointe du Hoc, where US Army Rangers scaled impossible cliffs to dislodge German artillery that was raining down on the invaders. My guides were two excellent books – the late Stephen Ambrose’s “D-Day” and a new e-book by Yagil Henkin, a teacher at Israel’s Military College (their officer trainees annually tour Normandy) entitled “Uneasy Red,” a self-guided tour of Omaha Beach. But seeing the sights and walking the beach offers a perspective that reading about it – even watching movies about it – cannot.
The Americans had the element of surprise. Even though the Germans knew a maritime invasion was coming, they did not know when and where. Hitler insisted on the construction of a fortified Atlantic Wall, with reinforced bunkers, artillery positions, mines on the beaches and the shallow water, steel rods in the water (Rommel’s “asparagus”) that impeded easy access and numerous heavy guns up and down the French-Atlantic coast. But the area was too large to be competely protected, a point that Hitler failed to accept, and, in any event, Rommel opposed the approach but was forced to implement it. In the end, it was the downfall of Germany. Hitler guessed wrong and focused his defenses closer to Calais, and Rommel himself was home on June 6, 1944 celebrating his wife’s birthday.
The attack was meticulously planned and rehearsed, which was Eisenhower’s strength as a general and the reason why he was selected as commander. (Perhaps how he was also able – a decade later – to build the Interstate Highway System.) Each small group of soldiers – less than a company level – even 2-5 soldiers – were given specific assignments carefully delineated on maps – capture this artillery outpost, seize this particular small territory, pilot the boat to this precise area, etc. Everyone had something precise to do and knew also,what everyone else in the unit was doing in case the expected casualties forced a change in the mission.
Much went wrong in the battle. Aside from the mines and the steel traps, there were other intelligence miscues. The battle began shortly after midnight on June 6 when paratroopers landed behind Nazi lines, followed a few hours by an intense offshore bombardment from Navy ships and Army planes – but most of the bombs missed the German positions because the bombers were warned to drop them in such a way as to guarantee they would not hit US forces landing ashore right after dawn. They missed the Americans – but also missed the Germans. Most of the objectives of D-Day itself were not achieved for weeks.
Omaha Beach is also, for the most part, completely flat and open, in some places 100 yards from shore to cliff. There was simply no place to hide. Because of the obstructions in the water, boats could not approach as close to the shore as was planned. Many sank. Much equipment was offloaded, and also sank to the water bottom. Reinforcements arrived without enough equipment to sustain them. Hundreds of soldiers were killed before they even fired a shot – before they even came ashore. Nazi machine-gunners rained down bullets on them. Others made it to shore but had already lost their weapons. But they persevered, and succeeded both because of their overwhelming numbers and weaponry (in some places, the Germans simply ran out of ammunition) and especially their bravery under fire. There was an eagerness to get to the top, not just to live but to complete the mission. They knew exactly why they were fighting and considered it a duty and a privilege.
(It helps to be young, naive, and deem oneself invincible. Ambrose tells of one young soldier, who, when his unit was informed that they anticipate that two-thirds of the group would be casualties, looked to the men on his left and on his right, and thought to himself, “you poor b——s.”)
No place is more hallowed than Pointe du Hoc, famously memorialized by President Reagan’s speech in 1984. It is simply unimaginable how these young men climbed a 100 foot cliff under heavy fire carrying heavy equipment, while sustaining heavy casualties (some units as much as 90%!), and succeeded in repelling the German forces. Less well known is that when they reached the top the heavy guns were gone (!), ostensibly their purpose in the mission. They were found an hour later; the Germans had hidden the guns in a field fearing they would be overrun.
The price in human life was enormous, and a walk through the American military cemetery at Omaha Beach is a sobering experience. In all, more than 9300 soldiers are buried there, although most were not D-Day casualties. The endless rows of crosses recalls not only the sacrifice but also how there was a time in recent American history when soldiers were routinely buried with crosses. No matter how pious they were, they were default Christians – willingly so – and thankfully there was no ACLU to argue for sectarian burials. Because the layout is perfectly spaced, it was relatively easy to spot the dozens of Stars of David signifying the American-Jewish soldiers who fell in combat. I stopped at more than a dozen, and recited the (K)El Maleh prayer. Almost all the fallen had their lives ended before they really began, dying before they married or had children, and all – as the inscription above the chapel reads – so that justice should prevail and their fellow man should be able to enjoy freedom and embrace peace. That alone is worth the visit – in retrospect, I spent more than 90 minutes in the cemetery itself.
(There are about a dozen US military cemeteries in France, the final resting places of American soldiers from both world wars. Oddly, less than a half hour’s drive from Omaha Beach and slightly inland is the German military cemetery, with even more graves than at Omaha Beach. For the most part, Germans fought bravely, although the Normandy beaches were also defended by forced laborers from Korea, Russia, Poland and elsewhere, and they were more interested in surrender and survival than the German fatherland or Nazi ideology.)
It was a different world then, just 70 years ago, with different leaders who represented an ethos that reflected the best of America and inspired the world for decades. Eisenhower’s D-Day message to the troops was brief and inspirational. Less known are the alternate words he had drafted in case of failure and composed on a piece of paper he kept that day in his pocket, taking full and personal responsibility for the defeat and thanking the soldiers for their bravery and sacrifice. A president – a general – taking responsibility for a failure? What a novel concept.
Had television been present then, and had journalists the same (lack of) ethics then as many have today, the story might have had a different ending. Many things went wrong – and unreported. Many soldiers died unnecessarily – but all were treated as heroes. The journalists saw themselves as part of the crusade – not as objective observers without an interest in the outcome. Casualty figures – more than 9000 on D-Day itself – were concealed from the public for some time so as not to impede the war effort. That simple patriotism no longer animates much of elite American society, and the sense that it is America’s obligation to seek to better the world – because only America can create a better world – is missing in too many people, from the President on down.
Finally, it was FDR and Churchill’s insistence on unconditional surrender that provided their societies with a clear metric by which to measure success or failure, even though such prolonged the war and caused more casualties. Such clarity is absent today, in America’s recent wars and even Israel’s wars against Arabs and their terror. It should not be enough – in fact, it is inherently defeatist – to state that if the evildoers halt their evil, even temporarily, then the virtuous will cease trying to eliminate that evil. That is a recipe for failure, for kicking the can down the road until the enemy becomes too powerful to stop. Today’s goal should be the elimination of the Hamas leadership and their supporters, with the first step necessarily being deeming all Gazans an “an enemy population,” period. One need not feed their enemy, or provide them with the fuel or electricity that facilitates their firing rockets and missiles. The PM’s excuse that “the lawyers” tell him he must is…not leader-like, and sounds as lame as it is illogical. Not all Germans were Nazis or supported the Nazis, but the enemy was Germany, and even some innocents were collateral victims.
Two factors inhibit that obvious declaration which would make the conduct of the war easier (especially since the enemy combatants dress as civilians, hide among civilians and for the most part are civilians): first, it is part of the Israeli narrative – and nature – to be magnanimous, to treat the enemy as a potential friend, to show that Jews are better than them, more moral than they are, because frankly, we are. Second, for both domestic and foreign reasons, Israel has to propagate the sentiment that peace is possible, which declaring the enemy society an “enemy society” undercuts. But refraining from stating the obvious just makes the political and diplomatic rut even deeper as well as more dangerous.
Israel today needs a propaganda D-Day, an all-out assault on the false Arab narrative, on the phony claims of victimization, on the catastrophe that the Arabs are again bringing on themselves, and on the legitimacy of Hamas as players on the world scene. A restoration of the failed status quo is a defeat for Israel. The world is now primed for the defeat of a terror organization – any terror organization. Israel can provide that. People are aware that the world is engulfed in violence because Arab terror is uncontrollable – and because the good people (the US and others) are tired. Let Israel play that role, change the dynamic, and strike its enemies a vigorous blow that forces them and their supporters to flee or cower in fear, and absorb the wrath of own people. This will only be possible if Israel ignores its left-wing media (and the cliches of the US/UN/EU), sees beyond the immediate consequences of its actions to the long-range goals it should intend to achieve, believes in the justice of its struggle, and, above all, perseveres and doesn’t turn back at the first dissonant or discouraging sign.
Those were the lessons of D-Day enshrined forever in history on the beaches of Normandy. If the desire is there, evil can be defeated – with G-d’s help, strength, courage and commitment. It would be the dawn of the next “Greatest Generation,” which the world today both needs and deserves.