For anyone born after 1945, World War II is ancient history, known only in textbooks and seemingly as distant as the Civil War. But for those with older memories, the current commemoration of the 50th anniversary of D-Day is a rekindling of something intense and personal.
Among those standing Monday on the windswept cliffs above the beaches of Normandy will be President Clinton, born after World War II and an avoider of the draft in the Vietnam era. His will be the tough task of giving voice to American sentiments in behalf of the heroes of June 6, 1944, a somber and grueling moment in history.Yet in ceremonies in Italy and other battlegrounds leading up to the D-Day commemoration, Clinton has managed to avoid his own past and give a sense of dignity to the World War II veterans, and especially to those who died in battle, by simply emphasizing a message of "thank you" from their country.
Fiftieth anniversaries are important. They not only give historical perspective to events; they also rescue the past from obscurity while there are still living witnesses.
And the D-Day Allied landings on the coast of France in the face of a determined enemy deserve to be remembered in detail. The landings marked the beginning of the end of a tyrannical Nazi occupation of Europe that had lasted for five years.
However, in paying tribute to the heroes of D-Day, the nation should guard against exaggeration. Some have called D-Day the single most important battle of the war, a turning point. It was crucial, to be sure. But there were other critical times and places and turning points in World War II as well, perhaps the biggest of them on the Russian front.
Yet in its own way, D-Day was the single most complex and spectacular achievement in the war. The invasion involved 5,000 ships putting ashore 200,000 troops and thousands of vehicles in a single day.
It was impressive, but the cost was high. By the time what has become known as "The Longest Day" had ended, some 10,000 Allied servicemen had been killed or wounded. The dead included 2,500 Americans on a single bloody stretch of beach with the code name of Omaha.
It was a day of confusion, death, suffering, fear and pain - all the things that make war the miserable and horrifying enterprise it is. The day also encompassed what one writer characterized as the common display of uncommon courage.
The outpouring of attention on D-Day and the war in general has also revived memories of the homefront. Despite the shortages, the family members in the military, the dreaded telegrams announcing casualties, the rationing and the scrimping, there is a certain nostalgia for those years.
America was united, working together. There was a sense of common purpose, of sharing and sacrifice and a grim determination that suffused the country. Unlike a later time when the nation's confidence could be shaken by a dozen battle deaths in a place like Somalia, Americans in 1944 learned of thousands of dead in a single day and suffered, prayed and kept on. It was a time and a mood that has never been duplicated.
The 50th anniversary of D-Day has brought thousands of aging veterans and other visitors back to the beaches of Normandy for three days of remembering and paying tribute to fallen heroes at the American cemetery overlooking the beaches. The veterans are in their 70s and late 60s, most probably coming back for the last time.
As personal memories fade, so will the nation's sense of involvement with D-Day and the World War II era. That is inevitable. But for this moment, the events of the Longest Day should be recalled in detail and remind Americans once again of the bravery of those who went into that storm of battle - and the terrible price paid in the cause of freedom.
To heroes of D-Day: We salute you.