June 6, 2014
At dawn on D-Day, 2014, the breeze was soft, the weather warming. The temperature would reach the high 80s. This was not the Longest Day’s weather.
All highways and major roads near the Normandy beaches were closed to general traffic in order to facilitate travel by buses (scores of them) and cars and limousines carrying more than three thousand people, many of them Americans, to the ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the landing of Allied troops on the Normandy beaches. June 6, 1944, was, after all, finally, the beginning of the end of World War II in Europe.
World War what?
On one bus going to the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, a young girl and her younger first cousin, a college student in Pennsylvania, were looking after their grandfather. He had been a 19-year-old engineer in 1944, and had landed on June 9, to build anything and everything that the engineers built, but especially landing strips. He had not been back to the beaches since his first visit. His wife of 66 years had died two years ago, and so it fell to his granddaughter to look after him. She was justly proud of her grandfather, and admitted, lovingly, that his stories did change a bit each time he told them. And he kept worrying that the ceremony might start without him. It would not have.
She was less proud of her friends and her cousin’s classmates, who, she said, had little or no interest in where they were going or why. “Oh, you’re going to France,” they said. “What are you going to do there?” She explained. They didn’t seem to understand.
According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, only 40 percent of Americans know that June 6 is the anniversary of D-Day. And 25 percent don’t know that D-Day occurred during World War II. College graduates aren’t much better: almost 10 percent of them say that if you visit the beach where D-Day took place, you’ll be at Pearl Harbor.
We are tempted to laugh, in that nervous way we laugh at other people’s ignorance. Or perhaps we remember instead, especially if we have been to the Visitors’ Center at the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, that many of the young soldiers who came from all over America to those Normandy beaches also had no idea, before they got there, of where those beaches were, no idea of where they were going — going, many of them, to die.
But that was then, before the greatest amphibious landing the world had ever seen — and ever will see. You might think that, today, the battle that changed the course of Western Civilization would have a bit more resonance.
The course of what?
What was World War II all about, anyway?
President Obama, in his address at the American Cemetery, indicated that it was about liberty, equality, freedom, and the inherent dignity of every human being. Just how liberty and freedom differed was not explicated — perhaps tighter editing would have eliminated the issue. Equality is a big campaign issue for the president, so it may not be surprising he would include it. And we certainly believe in the inherent dignity of every human being. But was that all there was to a war in which millions died?
Obama’s list seems weak, desiccated, especially in comparison to President Franklin Roosevelt’s understanding of World War II, and of D-Day in particular. Early on the morning of June 6, 1944, President Roosevelt asked the nation to “join with me in prayer,” a portion of which had been read two days before Obama’s speech by a different speaker at a ceremony at the French-American Memorial Hospital in Saint-Lô — a town so destroyed it was nicknamed “The Capital of Ruins.”
Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.
Today, our religion and our civilization are controversial subjects, subjects to be fought over in debates, not for in battles.
Roosevelt ended his D-Day prayer with the words “Thy will be done, Almighty God. Amen.”
There has been a movement in recent years to add FDR’s prayer to the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Obama administration has opposed the move. Robert Abbey, the Obama-appointed director of the Bureau of Land Management, has resisted adding FDR’s prayer, saying that any plaque or inscription of the prayer would “dilute” the memorial’s central message, and therefore that the memorial “should not be altered.”
The day before D-Day this year, a bill sponsored by Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Mary L. Landrieu (D-LA) to add the prayer to the World War II memorial passed the Senate unanimously. Approval by the House is expected, which will force President Obama to confront the issue. And perhaps force Americans in general to confront the issue of what America is all about, and why over 4,000 American soldiers died on a stretch of beach most of them had never heard of only a few months before they got there.
By “our civilization,” Roosevelt meant Western civilization — the mores, habits, and culture that define us, Americans and Europeans, and that over centuries have made us who we are today. Those mores include the freedom and “the inherent dignity of every human being” that President Obama mentioned. But Roosevelt seems a lot closer to the grandeur of the common experience of America and Europe, and without a common understanding of that heritage in America, and how it links us to Europe, it seems entirely possible that D-Day never would have happened.
It is primarily a religious heritage, and you can see it glistening like mica in President Reagan’s D-Day speech in 1984 at the U.S. Ranger Monument at Pointe du Hoc in Normandy.
That heritage is fading now, along with the memories of what it was that happened that day in Normandy. But there are still, and will be for a few more years, granddaughters looking after their grandfather-heroes, and we will look to them to help us keep warm the memories of the glorious exploits of June 6, 1944. They will help us remember what happened there, then. But it will be up to us to engage in the longer and more difficult struggle to remember why.
Daniel Oliver is a Senior Director of White House Writers Group in Washington, D.C. In addition to serving as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Ronald Reagan, he was Executive Editor and subsequently Chairman of the Board of National Review.