The Allied landing never seemed real. It was a movie, a history lesson — not real life. That is, until I stood on Omaha beach at the age of twenty-one. I’d little interest in leaving Paris that collegiate summer, when carefree days in art museums gave way to nights amid international students who smoked Moroccan hash and played guitars. My friends and I, Americans of the luckiest generation, conceived of war as particularly gripping broadcasts we’d seen on CNN at age 10 or 11, when Operation Desert Storm felt distant, morally unambiguous and consequence free. We joined a student trip to Northern France mostly for the free day at the beach.
Our perspective shifted as we stepped off the bus at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. The grounds are a serene expanse of 9,387 graves. The monuments are austere, a simple white cross marking most plots, a Star of David marking others. “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” I thought, and I felt gratitude toward the men in those graves, whose makers put their ages near my own, though I could hardly fathom their battlefield deeds.
It felt unreal. Suddenly I wanted it to feel real.
The cemetery sits atop a bluff that looks out at the English Channel. A path winds gently down to Omaha Beach, a windswept expanse as tranquil and calming as any sandy seascape, its sweep strangely reminiscent of the Southern California beaches where I grew up surfing and playing touch football. Clouds of white and gray scrolled overhead. The sporadic sunlight let the sea appear alive with spangled spots one moment, but left it dull gray the next.
I stowed my shoes and socks by a piece of driftwood, rolled up my pant legs, waded knee deep and turned only as the remnants of the breakers lapped against my thighs. The bluff rose up before me as I’d planned: On June 6, 1944 men my age stood here, I thought, among mines laid so they’d be blown to bits.
They trudged to the shore under machine gun fire, rushing across that impossibly wide beach, as Germans fired down on them from atop that bluff.
Novels depict young men yearning for the glory of war, but I stood on my nation’s most glorious battlefield unsure I’d have mustered the physical courage to step off those transports. I imagined myself braving enemy fire to drag a wounded friend away from German strafing. As easily, I imagined lurking like a coward behind the transport, pretending to be wounded until others rushed forward to take the brunt of the offensive.
On the path back to the cemetery, quirks of landscape gripped my imagination. A large rock came alive as a place where men had taken cover. A narrow, brush-covered ravine seemed an ideal place for sniping at unsuspecting Germans.
Could I shoot?
Alone on the path, khaki pants soaked through with salt water, I wondered whether I’d be able to kill at close range a soldier for an army I believe to be history’s most evil. I hoped I’d fire… but I couldn’t be certain without my finger on the trigger, close enough to see his flaring nostrils and his fearful human eyes.
Atop the bluff American flags stretched taut in the breeze. A young man, perhaps 18, knelt by a graveside. As the bus transported us toward our afternoon of recreation I thought seriously for the first time about a military draft — the Selective Service paperwork I’d been sent at age 18, my name on record should my country desire to draft me. The prospect seemed so distant that summer of 2001. Even so, I conjured the dread I’d feel upon receiving a draft card in the mail, even for a war I supported — and the horror I’d feel if called to fight in a war I opposed.
The women in my program sat around me on the bus, and I felt envious of the opposite sex for the first time in my life, envious that they’d never be drafted to fight in a war, that they’d never be forced to question whether they’d fight bravely or turn coward under fire, and especially that they’d never be asked to kill for a cause they felt immoral, or even for a cause they believed in.
I’d left France to spend a semester in Spain when terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center. I felt the anger we all felt and an impulse for revenge against those responsible. And I wondered – guiltily, since the dead weren’t yet buried — whether this calamity, wrought on a world I didn’t recognize, might lead to a war I’d be called to fight, a draft for the men of my generation.
Indeed I favored a war to oust the Taliban, though I never considered volunteering — I’d have been frightened to death to fight it.
On October 7, 2001 the invasion of Afghanistan began. As the first American soldiers died, I enjoyed a magical semester in Seville, occasionally fretting about mere anarchy being loosed upon the world, but mostly studying Spanish by day and bars, discothèques and guapas by night. Once a group of American servicemen on leave sauntered into a bar my friends and I frequented for its cheap sangria. These men evoked a visceral gratitude stronger than any emotion I’ve ever felt for strangers. I bought the whole group a round of beers, a financially painful gesture given my meager funds, but that mainly made me feel guilty — though it seemed to touch them — because it felt so small, so insufficient. I felt as though they should resent me for studying abroad as they fought to make my drunken revelry, never mind my family’s safety, possible.
As the Iraq War began, I’d returned to the United States. I spent my weekends surfing, working on a novel, and socializing with friends. As a reporter in Southern California, I interviewed several marines home on leave, an infantryman who’d lost a leg, and even the family of a helicopter pilot killed in action. I’d view being drafted to fight in Iraq among the most calamitous personal events I can now imagine. But I never felt pity for the men I met — even the ones who’d lost a limb or taken a bullet — because they carried themselves so well, talked so circumspectly about their sacrifice, and took such pride in their mission. I looked in their eyes, and sensed that to pity them would’ve been to demean them and the choice they made to serve our country, though they are owed more gratitude than we can ever marshal.
Last week I sat on the Washington D.C. Metro across from a decorated soldier. He mustn’t have been 21, wore an immaculate uniform and looked me square in the eyes. I’d gone several weeks without thinking about our military men and women abroad, a privilege unfairly reserved for those of us who’ve no close friends or family in combat. It is startling to realize that most days young people between his age and mine are dying.
Even now, I can’t quite fathom that reality, but each year on D-Day, when a newspaper story or a segment on television reminds me of the anniversary, the clarifying effects of my long ago visit to Omaha Beach linger on, so that I am better able to appreciate the courage of our troops, more grateful for their heroism and conscious that I am wholly unable to justify the gulf between their sacrifice and mine.
––Conor Friedersdorf is a freelance writer and an assistant editor at Bloggingheads.tv.
(Image used under a Creative Commons license courtesy Flickr user davidagalvan.)