Imagine what must have been going through the minds of those men stepping off their troop carriers into the pounding surf and raging hell of the Normandy beaches on D-Day — June 6, 1944. The noise, the fear, the confusion, the sights of wounded and dying men must have been terrible. And yet, they were triumphant. Because so many thousands of American and Allied troops were so brave on that day so long ago, the genuine evil of Hitler’s Nazi was ultimately defeated. The final march to victory for freedom and justice started that day in Normandy, D-Day.
“The Greatest Generation” — those who gave so much in World War II — is fast disappearing. They fought wars on both sides of the globe. The twin theaters of WWII — Europe and the Pacific — were stages for the vast drama of the human struggle for freedom, an end to totalitarianism, the clear battle between tyranny and democracy. World War II might have been the last war where there was no confusion about means and ends, about purpose and agreement on the need for the fight. Subsequent wars across more recent generations —- Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan — have generated far more controversy about means and ends, ending with feelings of disappointment and frustration.
The serious arguments and deep conflicts we have today over issues of war and defense strategy should in no way diminish our sense of respect and appreciation for the heroism and sacrifice of those who fought in World War II. That war was an essential, inescapable moment in human history, without which our lives today would be dramatically different, and not for the better.
I’ve been reading William L. Shirer’s massive work on Nazi Germany, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a potent reminder of how shockingly easy it was for a relatively marginal demagogue like the young Adolf Hitler (in his early days, virtually homeless and destitute) to grab power and persuade his own country and even world leaders that there was something attractive about his tyrannical madness. Too late, the rest of the world woke up to his demented plan for domination, and millions of people lost their lives in the ensuing years of war, terror, oppression and concentration camps.
D-Day was the beginning of the end of Hitler’s madness. Was D-Day necessary? Yes. To win the war in Europe, to defeat Hitler, yes. But of course, that begs the question of whether Hitler ever should have risen to power, a pathway strewn with examples of poor judgment, self-interest and moral failure.
Today we salute and thank the D-Day veterans and all who gave their lives in World War II. And once again we vow to redouble our efforts to make war only something we remember as a past event. They fought so hard to win our peace; we need to renew focus on keeping the peace.