There’s something fitting about discussing the D-Day anniversary on the day AFTER June 6 — D-Day Plus 1, as it might be called.
Because I do believe that’s the point now.
Thursday marked the 75th anniversary of the greatest military invasion in modern history. This massive World War II offensive is still remembered, not entirely in hyperbole, as the day that may have saved civilization as we know it.
In the broader scheme of mortality, the “Plus 1” reminds us that, on this 75th anniversary, practically everyone still alive who played a role in that event is now at least in their early 90s. As actor Richard Burton put it in the 1963 D-Day movie “The Longest Day,” the few are getting fewer. The burden of remembering, more importantly than ever, is shifting to us.
I realized a few months ago, as I began contemplating this anniversary, that I don’t think I know anyone anymore who was there who is still here to talk about it. I may be wrong, but, frankly, the odds say otherwise. And that’s sobering.
So, too, is the notion that fewer people know much about the momentous invasion of Normandy, the likes of which could never be pulled off again in this age of Google Earth and relentless satellite surveillance.
That lack of knowledge hits me from a generational point of view. I grew up in the post-World War II age when even most kids knew about D-Day, though we were born well after the fact. It was just common knowledge, passed along to us practically by osmosis, because World War II veterans were everywhere. D-Day was like a holy moment in the religion of our modern history. It was referenced in pop culture and school work, in talk across dinner tables and in conversations in the street.
But time has a cold habit of taking care of such familiarity. The stories we all knew have become distant second- or third-hand tales to new generations who know very few if any World War II vets and can’t make the connection between then and now.
I think a lot about an uncle of mine who served in the Coast Guard and was offshore in the English Channel as the Normandy landing took place 75 years ago. I don’t know exactly what he saw, but I can close my eyes and imagine him standing on the deck of a ship and looking at the French shores shrouded in smoke and dust, and hearing relentless roars and explosions in the distance as Allied soldiers stormed an Atlantic Wall of death. At that moment, did he know he was watching the destiny of the world unfold? Did he realize how thin the line was between success and failure in a desperate cause for the fate of civilization?
I don’t know the answers, only the outcome. Of course, time has blurred some of the details into the superficially colorful tones that victorious history tends to paint. But we know that June 6, 1944, didn’t deal the final, crushing blow to Nazi Germany that many believed. A lot of work remained; a lot of dying was yet to be done.
But D-Day still has an impact of life in the here and now.
To understand it, just look around. We live in a world today in which freedom stood stronger after World War II than it likely would have under practically any other outcome. All that we know has been shaped in some way by it. And D-Day was perhaps the mightiest linchpin.
The celebration held Thursday in Normandy drew world leaders and world attention, as it should have. And it summoned together some of those remaining few who risked everything on that beach and lived to build a new world. But there was also an overwhelming sense of finality about the ceremony and the moment. For the old warriors, it was likely their last bow at a place that changed their lives and changed us.
Soon, they’ll be gone and the world will never really feel the same again. But that world remains the ultimate monument to what was accomplished on D-Day, as well as in Italy, across the Pacific and wherever else the light of civilization took a stand against the grim darkness. Perhaps not all of us can see it or understand it anymore, but it’s still around us. It still matters. And as long as we cherish our freedom from tyranny, it always will.
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