Now, almost seventy years since that awful day,
I can freely walk this beach.
Generations of people have done so, before me.
We can walk here now, because more than nine thousand, five hundred men allowed their lives to be cut short.
So that ordinary people, like my wife and I, could walk here.
Sometimes Michele and I go to the ocean, or the shores of Lake Michigan: it's an opportunity to collect our thoughts, talk about things that have passed and what they mean for the future, sort out what is and what is to come.
But from the moment we approached this beach – Omaha Beach – we knew that it was not a place for words.
For a very long time, we walked quietly, hand in hand, and looked all around us. The barbed wire had been removed, there were no more iron barriers or wooden entanglements. The mines had been detected and cleared. All that was left was the pristine sand, and the hushed, steady mantra of the waves, crashing against the shore.
I spent a long time that day, listening to the sounds of those waves. I hoped that I might hear the voices of all those young men who had lost their lives. But their voices deferred to the waves... The men were at peace, laid to rest up the hill.
All was as it should be. And yet, all around, there was the unspoken knowledge of the cost, the terrible cost in lives lost.
For the last two days, we have taken a very different tack on our pilgrimage through France. Instead of cathedrals and monasteries, it has been time for memorials, beaches and cemeteries. Places of other kinds of sacrifice.
We went to Caen, and spent an entire day at Le Mémorial de Caen, the Museum for History and Peace. We spent time learning about the events that led up to the Second World War; the debt paid by Normandy, which absorbed the brunt of the first Allied assaults; and the eventual outcome...including the Cold War that followed. We listened to recorded stories of people who had been caught in bombings – in London, in Dresden, in Hiroshima. We watched, with no small amount of terror, and took in the manic anger of the Third Reich, the staunch responses of the British, and the covert valor of the French Resistance; and later, we weighed the back-and-forth propaganda of the United States and the USSR.
And then, the next day, we simply went to Omaha Beach and walked. Walked for a very long time.
In the most important of places, words fail to convey the enormity of what has transpired. Lives lost, bravery before death. Commitment in the face of fear. Actions done with modest but unflinching heroism when the highest ideals were at stake. All completed by young men, most of them less than half my age.
There were two conclusions to these days, each on a slightly different note. The first, in Caen: to see, in bold press and photographic witness, the erection of a wall that divided Berlin in two, and the eventual triumph of that city when her population finally tore it down, tore it down and defaced it, let graffiti run rampant over it, sold the whole damn thing off, in pieces, to museums. What a fitting way to end a very intense and overwhelming day in Caen, to see the triumph of peace overcome the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Republic.
The second, at the end of the day at the Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha Beach: to walk amid the gravestones of the young men who gave their all for me, and for us. To walk in a place which is so ordered, so beautiful, so full of dignity – in stark contrast to the day they died, which was hell, complete and utter violence, hatred and pandemonium.
I can walk here now. Because of their sacrifice.
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Location:Omaha Beach, Normandy, France