Of all the places I have seen in my life, I have never been so physically and emotionally rocked to my core as I was on the beaches of Normandy. At Coleville-sur-mer, at Pointe du Hoc, at Omaha Beach.
It is impossible to grasp the magnitude of what these men – these boys really – faced when they came out of the waves 70 years ago, unless you see it in person. The photgraphs do not do justice to the sheer length and breadth of Omaha beach.
On a clear, beautiful day it is enough to make you dizzy. Now imagine that the water was soaked in blood, the air was yellow and gray with smoke from explosions and gunfire. Imagine that the boat reeked of vomit and that the men sitting in front of you were killed before they could even make it into the water. Imagine that the beach was longer than 3 football fields and rimmed with cliffs 150 feet high.
It took over three years to plan Operation Overlord. Think about that for a minute. Three years. But then think about what was involved: a cross-channel assault on an enemy who knew we were coming, who had time to fortify the high cliffs with embattlements; the logistics involved in transporting 200,000 men, 6,000 ships, and 1,200 planes – without detection; the need to create vehicles that could float to shore and then instantly be able to navigate across sand; the fact that everything depended on the perfect alignment of tides, winds, a cloudless sky, and a full moon; the absolute necessity to keep every part of the mission a secret, even from the soldiers themselves.
I imagine that in today’s world, no one would have the patience to wait three years for such a feat, much less the ability to keep it a secret. No doubt today, an Edward Snowden would have published the plans on the internet, wearing the righteously indignant cloak of “freedom of information.”
But not only did the world patiently wait, they volunteered. In droves. They lied about their age, their health, and their experience. They got off those boats, waded into the water, and crawled onto those beaches toward certain peril because they knew, perhaps better than anyone in history, that it wasn’t just the fate of the war that hinged on their utter selflessness.
It was the fate of humanity.
Liberty is a word that is tossed around so much today by all sides of the political spectrum that it has almost lost its gravitas. But these men – Roosevelt, Churchill, the generals, the paratroopers who landed in France the night before, the enlisted 16 year olds who never made it out of the surf, the Rangers who scaled the cliffs and climbed over the bodies of their compatriots as German rifle fire rained down on them – every one of these men understood that they alone were the last bulwark against tyranny.
Their undertaking, still unparalleled in history, was borne out of their unshakeable faith that liberty and democracy – for people they didn’t know – were worth dying for.
And this is what makes America what it is. We do not lay claim to liberty as exclusively ours. We do not hoard it. Instead, we believe as a nation that it is our sacred duty to live and die so that liberty may live in others.
So every time you hear someone bemoan the sad state of America, every time some pundit catalogues our failings, every time cynicism starts to creep in, take a minute to think about the boys of Pointe du Hoc, and every other man or woman who fought for the liberty of all humanity – not just that which is confined to our borders.
That is why, 72 years later, we need to celebrate this day and remember that the beliefs that unite us are far greater than the disagreements that divide us.