I’ve never been one for skydiving or red convertibles, the cliché signs of a midlife crisis. My confrontation with mortality tends instead to lead to a less dangerous bucket list, one that’s focused primarily on places I have yet to visit—the Grand Canyon, Stonehenge, northern Norway for a front-row seat at the aurora borealis.
I recently checked off one of the spots near the top of my list: Normandy. My father fought in World War II and arrived in France a few days after D-Day (thus significantly increasing the chances that I would exist to be writing this today). He never spoke much about the war, so I got a better idea about what battle is like from Steven Spielberg than from him. In 1945, when it was all over, he was just 25 years old, and already battered by more trauma than I hope to know in a lifetime. I wouldn’t want to relive that much, either.
He’s been gone for a while now, but I wish I could tell him what it was like to step onto Omaha Beach 73 years after he did. The most remarkable thing is that it looks like a beach—just a beach. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting—angels hovering over the water, perhaps, or a John Williams score blaring from the clouds. Instead, I found a surprisingly narrow strip of sand, with children playing on it.
There’s a monument, of course, Allied flags still waving from tall poles, and a modern sculpture that looks like wings emerging from the sand. But what moved me most was the expanse of the place. Beyond the sand, there are grassy fields, a road, storefronts, all on a flat stretch of land far from the hills upon which the Germans roosted on that fateful, fatal day. That openness, and the placidity of the place, gave me a shudder. The only phrase that came to mind was another cliché, both inadequate and inevitable: sitting ducks. When the hatches opened and the Allied soldiers emerged into hellfire, there was nowhere to hide.
But ducks don’t know they’re sitting. Those men knew exactly what was about to happen. And still they did it. They did it simply because it had to be done, because there was no living without freedom. They did it not for themselves—they all must have feared they’d be dead within minutes—but for us.
Later, we visited the American Cemetery, a beautiful, cliffside lawn where nearly 10,000 people are buried. It’s a sea of white crosses and stars of David, all facing westward, toward home.
I walked slowly, as reverently as an atheist can, through the rows of graves. And I found myself lightly touching each marker I passed and murmuring, Thank you. Thank you for putting principle over personal safety. Thank you for standing up to tyranny. Thank you for making the world a better place for the rest of us.
We were on vacation, and—especially these days—vacation means an escape from the news. I didn’t watch any television that week, barely checked the headlines on the rare occasions when I bothered to log in to Wi-Fi. But I carried the news with me. I carried the trauma that has haunted me since November 2016. I carried the knowledge that the country I was visiting, the one that had capitulated to Hitler, had soundly rejected protofascism in its own recent election, while ours—the country that had saved it—had gone the other way. And I carried the memory of Charlottesville, where a woman had been killed fighting against the same kind of hatred that had started the war this hallowed ground acknowledged. Just days before, fascists and white supremacists had marched through the streets of Charlottesville, torches in hand, proclaiming hatred for anyone who didn’t look like them. And, as I came to learn while I was across the sea, the president of the United States had refused to condemn them.
The markers in that cemetery are a tribute to the brave Americans who stood up to barbarians and sacrificed their lives for freedom. Those people did not die so that the president of the United States could pander to Nazis. They demonstrated bravery in the face of death, not cowardice in the face of poll numbers. If our current commander-in-chief set foot on that sacred spot overlooking Omaha Beach, the very ground would tremble in protest.