While my wife and I were in France last year, we devoted a day to visiting the hallowed sands of Omaha Beach.
Perhaps like many over the years, I have often gazed curiously at the gray, blurred photos in history books, winced vicariously through the brutal opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, even perhaps listened reverently to the halting stories of a frail veteran. But bracing yourself against the cold wind on that beach—coming face-to-face with the theater of slaughter—almost makes you forget to breathe.
When we arrived, we first read the stories on the displays in the museum — dentists, farmers, high school football players, auto mechanics, teachers, grocery clerks — who became something else when bullets and mortars rained down on them for hours from the hedgerows and cliffs above. They can’t kill us all was the only truth they knew, and it kept them coming.
You feel proud, large. In a collective, institutional sense, you are part of it in that you belong to a nation that stands for standing up against that evil, for sacrificing so others no longer must suffer.
Then you feel guilty, small. At first, you walk among the rows of crosses in curiosity, then you sheepishly step back to the road and look from a distance, knowing that the soil ought not be asked to yield to your footprint. On an individual level, you slink back from the acres of white markers, buffeted with doubts about your own embrace of a sacrifice and purpose beyond yourself.
At first we talked, chatted even, about what we saw — the terrifying expanse of the beach, the hidden machine gun nests, the yawing cavities from artillery blasts now strangely festooned with the yellow flowers of early spring.
Then, you stop talking and let the beach speak for itself. You hear the ocean breaking against the cliffs of Point du Hoc where Army Rangers clawed their way up the sheer face with grappling hooks only to have German soldiers slice the ropes and send them hurling to the rocks below. The waves lap against the landing barriers still nestled in the water where Army soldiers weighed down with 75 pounds of gear poured out of troop carriers in a race for their lives. The wind whistles through the vent holes of the massive underground batteries that 70 years before trumpeted with the staccato fury of machine gun and anti-aircraft firing.
Then you shut all that out and just get quiet. Silence louder than words.
Yes, there is a lot that can be said about true leadership on these shores, but it need not be said. We can only hope in those moments—even those that fall far short of what happened here—that we have that inside of us in some right measure.
What I was reminded of on that day was that there are some who understand freedom to be what they can have.
To others, freedom is what they can give.