On June 6, 1944, on five French beaches—Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword, and Juno—the U.S. and other Allies launched the largest military operation in history. Their objective was to establish a beach head, liberate France from the Nazis, and ultimately move on to Berlin to defeat Adolf Hitler and win World War II. And they succeeded. Today, seventy-one years later, we honor the 3,000[i] Allied heroes who died in that “D-Day” offensive which turned the tide of history.
Near the visitors’ center of the Omaha Beach Cemetery and Memorial, at Colleville-sur-Mer on the Normandy coast of France, there is a slab of pink granite with a time capsule, set to be opened on June 6, 2044—the 100th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. The plaque on the slab is emblazoned with the five-star seal of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander of the European theatre during that invasion and later the President of the United States.
According to the plaque and nearby signage, the time capsule contains original news reports of D-Day and a personal message from Eisenhower.
I first became aware of, and photographed, this granite slab in 2005, when I had a chance to visit three of the beaches—Gold, Omaha, and Utah—which were invaded on D-Day. As a World War II history buff, I was deeply honored to stand on these beaches about which I had read so much.
Of the five beaches involved, Omaha had the highest casualties. Unlike the other beaches, which include gift shops and recreation areas, Omaha is somber—even sacred. I saw no joggers, swimmers, or picnickers. Those who hiked down to the beach from the cemetery above talked quietly, reflected alone, knelt to touch the water and feel the sand that had soaked up the blood of three thousand men during the first hours of D-Day.
I had read books and seen movies about that day, but it didn’t really jolt me until I stood at the water’s edge and looked up at the now lush green hills which had once been filled with Nazi machine gun nests and concrete bunkers. In the silence, I could almost hear the screams of the dying amid relentless explosions and gunfire. Eventually, many would be buried above the beach in the cemetery, where thousands of white marble grave markers—both Christian crosses and Jewish stars—now line the grassy hilltop.
This week, as I’ve considered D-Day—the start of the Allied invasion of Europe and the beginning of the end for Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich—I’ve spent a lot of time thinking: In the context of those grave markers and the lush green memorial lawn overlooking the now-quiet beach, what message might be in that time capsule? What did Eisenhower want to say to future generations?
He couldn’t have fathomed the directions the world would take in the next seventy years. However, on D-Day, as he faced the Nazi holocaust of millions of Jews and other victims—an example of the absolute worst human nature has to offer—and issued his Order of the Day to stop it, I’m sure he understood firsthand that real evil exists. Further, I’m sure he understood that this invasion would not stop evil once and for all, but that a broken humanity would continue to spread brutality and terror well after his time.
But now, seven decades later, most of us were born after World War II. We weren’t there; we don’t know what it was like. We seem to have forgotten that sometimes there is such a thing as a fight against evil. It is not uncommon to hear military personnel derided as uneducated hicks, bloody murderers, or both;[ii] even in the city where I live, anti-military sentiment is endemic. Though many people do respect the bravery and sacrifice of the military, I am saddened and angered by the disrespect of those who don’t.
Americans are restless, continually reinventing ourselves. We lack the focus to sit still for any period of time. We make critical decisions based on a two-minute news story or a twenty-second soundbite. Our impulsive social media posts can turn events or change lives at the speed of light, for good or ill. In fact, the only characteristic that never changes in America is our quickness to forget—and our ability to remember selectively.
So I wonder, what might Eisenhower’s message be?
I suspect it might be summarized in one word: remember.
When Eisenhower visited Orhdruf, the first of Hitler’s concentration camps to be liberated by American forces, he cabled George C. Marshall of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to request a visit from prominent editors and congressional leaders. One of Eisenhower’s concerns was that if they did not record proof of the mountains of desecrated bodies and other Nazi horrors, future generations would never believe it. [iii]
And that prediction proved accurate. Today, despite all the original photographs, film footage, eyewitness reports, and other verified documentation, it is becoming trendy to downplay or deny the Holocaust. In 2014, an eighth-grade teacher assigned her students an essay to decide whether or not the Holocaust was real.[iv] Even anti-Semitism is making a comeback, again on college campuses.[v]
It’s been just seventy years, yet already we have forgotten.
Remember why the men on Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword, and Juno beaches pressed forward against a wall of enemy gunfire. Remember that humanity is still broken and that people have an incredible ability to brutalize each other. Remember that evil is real; it is not simply a misunderstanding.
We are still twenty-nine years away from 2044, when we will open the time capsule and read the message Eisenhower prepared decades ago. I have no idea how the world will look at that time. But, given human nature, I am certain there will still be war, brutality, and terror. It’s a scary time. We are overwhelmed with all that is going on, and clearly, we have no idea how to stop it.
But the Allies did. At that time, in that place, there was almost universal agreement on who the enemy was and what needed to be done. And they did it.
So, through historical images and documentation, I remember D-Day. I remember the brave soldiers who pushed across every inch of that bloody beach, and their brave brothers who fell. I remember the stacks of Hitler’s dead victims in Ohrdruf and Auschwitz and Dauchau, and scores of other sites.
I remember so I won’t be apathetic.
I remember because, in the words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”[vi]
[i] Exact numbers are hard to verify, but reputable sources estimate total casualties (injuries) at about 8,000 to 10,000, and fatalities at about 3,000: http://warchronicle.com/numbers/WWII/ddaycasualtyest.htm
[ii] One representative example is a 2012 NBC news story about “anti-military vibes” and insults directed toward college students who formerly served in the military (http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/10/17/14469487-stray-anti-military-vibes-reverberate-as-thousands-of-veterans-head-to-college?lite).
[iii] See these original communications:
[vi] George Santayana, The Life of Reason: Reason in Common Sense. Scribner’s, 1905: 284.