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D-Day by the Book

ON the 50th anniversary of D-Day, Americans are showing a deep and genuine interest in the event. Not, perhaps, since the PBS television series on the Civil War a few years ago have so many of us thought about and remembered together our collective past.

D-Day - the Allied landing in Normandy on June 6, 1944 - brought a kind of clarity that is missing from the world today, where right and wrong seem ambiguous and complicated by comparison. It was a turning point in what Studs Terkel called ``The Good War.'' The previous 10 years of successful Nazi aggression had finally led to this channel crossing to retake Europe. Perhaps what the anniversary can bring is both a greater appreciation for the sacrifices made and a maturing of the historical memory of this struggle.

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History does need to be seen through an interpretive focus, some lens of learning. It is the drama of the struggle between good and evil.

In retrospect, it seems almost inevitable that good would win in the Normandy invasion. Yet what comes out so strongly in the recent books and commentaries is how uncertain and unclear the day started, and how many things went wrong.

We grew up with the black-and-white photos of Omaha Beach. In the past week we have seen again the tiny silent dark figures bending through the heavy surf. Hitting a barbed-wire-littered beach. Falling down. Pushing forward. What we cannot see in the images is the context, the network of decisions. We can't know that many of these soldiers have been given orders that their generals worry they will not be able to fulfill.

For this we need words, books, a record, archives, maps, descriptions. Historian Stephen Ambrose offers an extremely moving soldier's-eye account of the invasion, one of many new books on the subject. (See reviews, Page 15.)

In former Monitor writer Joseph Harsch's recent memoir ``At the Hinge of History,'' we find that Gen. George Marshall, who was originally slated for Gen. Dwight Eisenhower's role of Allied supreme commander, was an unsung hero. He stayed on at the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington and by the strength of his character warded off domestic efforts to delay the channel invasion until the Pacific war was settled (which would have given Hitler time to rebuild). The memory of World War I was vivid in Winston Churchill's mind, and he, too, initially questioned the channel invasion.

``Remember the days of yore; learn the lessons of the generation that came before you'' is one translation of Deuteronomy 32:7. A day like D-Day is bound to bring nostalgia and sentiment. That's understandable. But the questions provoked by the Good Book are pertinent. Let's be sure we learn the lessons we need for the future.

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