Fifty years ago, D-Day, June 6, 1944: The American, British, and Canadian forces struck the Normandy beaches in the early hours. The largest armada of ships and landing barges ever assembled crossed from the British shores. Overhead the greatest convoy of air power ever seen - fighters, bombers, transports with paratroop forces, gliders - carried the assault inland.
On the Normandy shore, first chaos, then improvisation. "It was no general's beach," one veteran reported. "It would have made no difference who would have commanded us those first hours."During the mayhem, soldiers answered some inward call and took to the cliffs. By noon the critical points had been taken. Nine thousand Allied servicemen had been killed or wounded that day. It looked "as if the hand of God had thrown debris all over." Then all was calm.
Today the battle sites along the Normandy coast are worth a visit of at least a day during anyone's trip to France. The open fields of crosses will raise a sob of recognition at the sacrifice of so many youths - most of whom saw only one day of any kind of battle. It is a lifetime kind of experience for the visitor to observe where modern history turned.
If all men are brothers, it is observed, then wars are between brothers. This is the tragedy of them. What confusion, what impulse to dominate, what sense of enemy leads us to do battle?
Wars cannot be undone. They cannot be unfought. At best we can take from them certain lessons and carry on from there. In this case, a united Europe linked economically and culturally is the logical, clear alternative to a Europe of countries at each other's throats. This is a lesson already lost on the former Yugoslavia.
The three American presidents generally considered the greatest - Washington, Lincoln, and FDR - were tested by war. Americans feel a deep ambivalence about entering a war on another's behalf - "entangling foreign alliances."
President Clinton headed to Europe this week with his own relationship to power and war deeply ambiguous. Veterans distrust him. He has not defined a national interest that beckons many to self-sacrifice. Significant steps toward peace in the Middle East have been taken on his watch. But the genocide in Bosnia and the slaughter in Rwanda - already a half million dead - are met with, at best, ambiguity in the White House.
But this is the time to remember an interruption in the lives of many thousands who, as it was simply said, died for freedom.
Germany, the aggressor, has been reunited. Germany has its own strains of nationhood to overcome. "The East German revolution, as the founding element of German unity and of a single German identity, appears today a highly ambiguous event," writes Anne-Marie Le Gloannec in an essay on German identity in Daedalus. "Four years after unification, the German nation . . . remains divided; unity, especially in the economic realm, only slowly bears fruit."
At Normandy the English-speaking forces came late but decisively into the European fray. Their sacrifice changed history.