SALT LAKE CITY — Omaha Beach was vast, and silent.
Froth formed where the pale blue water of the English Channel lapped at the edge of the beach. It had rained the night before, and rivulets of rainwater formed mysterious patterns in the sand, interconnecting to flow back into the channel.
One of the things I remember most about my summer 2016 family trip to Omaha Beach, in Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France, was the colors. The cerulean of the water. The bright, saturated green of the grass. And the pure white of the thousands of crosses marking the graves of the Americans who lost their lives on its shore on June 6, 1944: D-Day.
Although the U.S. has deployed troops to the Middle East for virtually my entire life, war has always seemed distant — in the past, in the background. I was born in 1996, 21 years after the Vietnam War and more than 50 years after World War II. I was 6 when President George W. Bush declared the U.S. invasion of Iraq. I don’t come from a military family. I don’t remember anything from 9/11, other than that my mother was nervous to take me to kindergarten that day, afraid there might be more attacks or the nation would be upended in chaos.
But I do remember Omaha Beach. It was disconcerting, standing there and looking as far into the horizon as the clouds would permit, to realize that a sense of peace pervaded this place precisely because a battle had been fought on its shores.
The tour guide led us through the Normandy American Cemetery, which contains the graves of 9,837 soldiers and the names of 1,557 missing soldiers, many of whom lost their lives on D-Day and the Allied invasion of Normandy, which lasted through August 1944. (On D-Day, an estimated 10,000 Allied soldiers were pronounced dead, wounded, or missing in action — 6,603 Americans, 2,700 British, and 946 Canadians.)
As we passed row after row of white crosses and Stars of David set in the velvety grass, the tour guide told us stories, pieced together from letters, of several different Americans who had fought in Normandy. One of those soldiers was Frederick Watts, a private in the 1st Infantry Division, who died on July 28, 1944. He was from Pennsylvania, the state in which I was attending college. The tour guide led us to the cross marking Watts’ grave. There was a single pink rose placed in front of it.
As the tour wrapped up, the guide said that the French will never forget what the Americans did for them on D-Day — liberating their nation from Nazi Germany.
At her words, a strong and bizarre feeling bubbled up in my chest, similar to the feeling that you get when you’re about to cry, but slightly different. I searched for the right word. Patriotic. I felt patriotic. I felt overwhelmed with love and pride for my country.
I have often grappled with the nuances of the word “patriotism.” For me, the word can imply an almost unconditional love for one’s country that is blind to its faults and prejudices and the way in which we ourselves might reinforce those faults and prejudices.
Is there a way to be patriotic while also acknowledging my country’s flaws and the ways it could improve?
Standing there at the Normandy American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, I began to understand that the two weren’t mutually exclusive. I could be proud of my country, while simultaneously working to make it a better place. I could be patriotic, while also calling for change.
Holding photocopies of the letters exchanged between Frederick Watts and his family while he was at war, I tried to imagine what Watts had felt on D-Day. He probably hadn’t been older than 19, my age at the time. I tried to imagine what it would feel like to embark on a mission that you knew could cost you your life, while also believing, to the core of your being, that the mission was worth that cost.
The stark colors and shapes of the cemetery have a biting, jolting beauty, one that slaps you in the face, wakes you up. It certainly woke me up.
It’s easy to get caught up in life’s injustices, both little and large. But the reason we can acknowledge those injustices in the first place, and voice different opinions about them, and ultimately work to right them, is because past battles to safeguard our personal freedom have already been won.
I looked down the expanse of the beach at the people walking along its shoreline. The air was suffused with calmness. I thought about how Frederick Watts could have been my brother, or my father. I thought about how the sacrifice of thousands of soldiers was still tangible in the lack of noise, in the emptiness of the beach, in the bunkers you stumbled upon in the grass.
I thought about how my ability to walk on the beach, to look at the water, in peace, in freedom, in reverence, was a gift. A gift from people like Frederick Watts. And it struck me that that’s what patriotism is. That sudden, overwhelming desire to say thank you, to express your gratitude, to someone you’ll never meet.