It is one thing to peer at the grainy, monotone photographs and films of documentaries and news programs this week, or to wince vicariously at the brutal opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan. It is altogether a deeper visceral experience to stand on the wind-swept beaches and try to imagine what happened on that theater of slaughter.
You almost forget to breathe.
We hear the stories — 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. The only thing that kept them crawling across the bloody sands of that beach was a fierce admission that they can’t kill us all.
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. You slink back from the acres of white markers, buffeted with doubts about your own embrace of sacrifice and purpose beyond yourself.
It’s quiet now. The beach speaks 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 on a dreary June morning trumpeted with the staccato fury of machine gun and anti-aircraft firing.
We soberly celebrate this day that changed the course of history. It did that in that era, but no river forever remains in its banks. Democracy — defined as broad civil liberties and institutional restraints on executive power — has blossomed around the world only twice in the lifetimes of the veterans who stormed these beaches. One boost was largely in Europe after the guns of WWII cooled, the other when the walls of the Soviet Empire crumbled. The point can be drawn that democracy is not a natural state of civilization; autocracy is.
The battle still rages, even if more now by words than guns. According to the largest study on the history of democracy in the world by geopolitical research organization V-DEM, more than half of the world’s people live in some variety of democracy, but a third of those nations — including many western nations — are viewed as backsliding precipitously internally in their stewardship of those freedoms.
Autocracy is the sworn enemy of democracy. There is no melding of ideologues between them without shedding beliefs in the restraint of power and the supremacy and universality of personal liberty.
We say that’s why these teenagers and young men crawled up the sands of the beaches of Normandy three generations ago. The sand — housing what is anathema to the ideals of democracy — tried to stop them, and for much of that brutal morning, had the advantage.
The only way democracy has the energy to overcome the inexorable decline into totalitarianism is to believe in it fiercely — inside and outside our borders.
The D-Day soldiers are now gone, but the sand is still there.
It has not gone away.
It never will.
Yet the poor fellows think they are safe! They think the war is over! Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
George Santayana “Solioquies in England” – 1924.