I suppose if I were ever to make one, this is as close to a pilgrimage I’ve ever made, to the American Cemetery in Normandy, France. Living in DC, I had the Arlington Cemetery literally at my doorstep. But, Normandy? It’s not an easy trip from most Americans to make, let alone time with a milestone date like Remembrance Day (Veteran’s for us).
The day before was a slew of miserable cold rain. But if living in the UK has taught me anything, it is that this morning will be started with a thick mist. How splendid a photo that would make! So I’ll make an early morning of it. Except I found myself facing a closed gate with a sign that read “0900 – 1700”. Blimey. At quarter to, they let us in. Guess that security camera is there for something.
There was a small ceremony held early in the day. Very small. Four men bore flags, and a gaggle of local dignitaries came in to present bouquets to the memorial. Inspection later showed each bouquet represented a local village as their thanks for the American soldiers.
I am overwhelmed by the sheer mass of graves. Cross after cross. Names etched but barely visible unless given closer inspection. A few stars of David scattered for those acknowledged to be Jewish. Plots went up through J. I walked though, venturing onto the lawns by the tombstones. Most people stayed on the main pathways. To me, many of these graves barely see visitors as it is harder for their loved ones to visit. Walking between the graves, reading the names aloud as I go, that was my respect, my honoring all the men who never made it home.
The cemetery had a paved walkway to the beach, the very stretch these men lost their lives for. It actually took me a while to realize it, as I had been so focused on the graves and crosses, that the cemetery overlooked the channel. The clear day we ended up having, the water was so blue I almost didn’t see the dividing line of the horizon between the water and the sky. What a far cry from that fateful day it is today. The stroll we took to get to the beach must have been seeped with blood and fragments. The miserable stormy weather that caused General Eisenhower to agonize over whether to cancel invasion. According to witness accounts, bodies washed ashore for weeks.
The survivors, those who still live today, we see as grandfathers. They were so young then. They were- are- someone’s son, brother, and father. We honour them as heroes today. They were. The acts of courage and resolve it took to storm this beach in the face of such odds and with comrades being cut down left and right, many of us will not understand because we never had to be tested like this. Yet, how scared they must have been.
I have an extremely vivid imagination. I don’t need graphic movies like Saving Private Ryan to help me visualise how things may have gone down in history. I’m not a history or military strategy buff; I don’t read much about World War II and know little beyond what I was taught in high school American history class. Yet, I walked away shaking and sombre. It’s a wonder how the whole generation of men from the war returned home and were able to resume some semblance of a normal life. I have no doubt we lost unknown numbers to post-traumatic stress, an undiagnosed and unrecognized condition.
Hindsight allows us to label this the “good war,” with victory on our side and a just cause of ending the Holocaust. The reality is most people didn’t believe or were in denial of rumors of the Holocaust happening. I cannot imagine how any war happening would be considered by contemporaries as “good,” regardless of which “side” you are on. Walking around the cemetery like this, how can anyone not realize how much warfare costs us.
I am not a pacifist in the sense that I would think war is never right. But the empathy I have for our military family runs deeper than ever. Lest we ever forget what the men and women serving are sacrificing. Lest we ever underestimate how much their families go through.