Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day: Remembering the Jaws of Death

On June 6th, 1944 Operation Overlord began with the Normandy landings (codename Operation Neptune) on five beaches in France along the English Channel. We generally refer to this moment as D-Day.

(from Wikipedia)

Some 2500 Americans lost there lives during these landings, as amphibious troop carriers opened their doors and foot soldiers waded towards the beach, under fire from German artillery and small arms. At Omaha Beach, soldiers were forced to wade fifty or more yards just to reach the shore. It's an horrific thing to imagine. Consider, for instance, what must have been going through the minds of these young men, as they road in the carriers--in rough seas, by the way--knowing that in just a few minutes, they would have to walk into heavy fire. Below is Robert F. Sargent's famous photograph from Omaha Beach, Into the Jaws of Death:

Yet, as bad as this sounds, there are far more horrific situations, both in World War II and other wars, that citizens serving in our nation's military were forced into, were ordered into. And of course, far greater loss of life accompanied these situations. Overall, nearly 300,000 U.S. citizens lost their lives (combat deaths) fighting for their nation in World War II, more than in the Civil War (213,000), World War I (53,000), the Korean War (34,000), the Vietnam War (47,000), or the combined Iraq-Afghan War (5,000).

This is not to say that--somehow--the losses are more important in World War II. They're not. One soldier's death is as lamentable as another in my opinion. But today, on Memorial Day 2012, while we all remember fallen friends, family members, and citizens who nobly fought for the nation, I think it fair to also remember what these deaths meant to the nation and how they are remembered.

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been covered incessantly by 24-hour news networks; every casualty is reported, we know the names of the dead very quickly. And that's not a bad thing, for it reminds us of the very real cost of war and keeps loved ones informed, rather than keeping them in the dark, having to live their lives for years without knowing if a soldier is ever coming home again (as was the case for many past wars).

The Vietnam War--cultural icon that it has become--has a monument in DC with the names of the fallen. And this too is a good thing; it is a righteous and just thing, remembering all of these soldiers in such a manner, particularly given how the War was received by the country.

And I feel for all relatives and friends of fallen soldiers; I count myself lucky that I've never had to face the kinds of situations these people--and the surviving veterans--have had to face. I count myself even luckier that I have family members who went to war and returned.

But I have to say that walking into a barrage of gunfire from an unseen enemy--as was the case on the Beaches of Normandy--is the scenario I am most glad to have never faced. For I just can't imagine it, can't wrap my head around it. There's a stoic fatalism, I guess, that one must adopt for the moment, a sense of duty that must be allowed to prevail.

And what I take from this, from thinking on it, is how little is left of these soldiers in our collective consciousness. If we're lucky, we have faces to go with names, but oftentimes there is little more than that.

At the same time, the number of World War II veterans is dwindling, as I've noted before. For those who died in the conflict, it is likely that even fewer still live who actually remember them before they went off to war, never to return.

And these things trouble me greatly. As costly as subsequent wars have been, none are on par with World War II. More than any other war in American History--save perhaps the War for Independence--World War II has created a uniquely American mythos, it has served as a backstop for national policy for over fifty years and served to create the conditions that vaulted the United States into the role of Superpower, both politically and economically.

Those who walked into the jaws of death to protect us, to protect the world, deserve to be remembered. Always.

Cheers, all.

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