June 4, 2009

Lorraine Collins Remembers D-Day

Realizing that President Obama is joining other world leaders to observe the 65th anniversary of the landing of Allied forces in France on D Day on June 6th, I remembered that I had written something about that historic event 15 years ago. That was on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of D Day when I was a commentator for South Dakota Public Radio. Although a decade and a half has passed since I wrote this, nothing has happened since then to change my view. The essay mentions Rwanda, but if I were to write it today, I might mention Darfur, or Gaza, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq….

The view from D-Day beaches - SDPR , June 27, 1994:

It must be a decade ago by now that I stood on the western shore of France on a high bluff overlooking the sea and contemplated the famous beaches of the D-Day invasion of World War II. Since we’ve just observed the 50th anniversary of that tremendous and historic day, I’ve been remembering my visit and the mixture of awe and admiration I felt as I stood there.

Nearby is the great American Cemetery and visiting that brought a terrible sense of loss. The liberation of Europe was made possible only by great sacrifices by ordinary people. War always comes down to this—thousands of graves with names carved in stone. And there the bodies lie, all these years later.

There are a lot of other battlefields and military cemeteries in Europe, from several wars and I happened to visit a few of them during the time I lived in England. I followed the paths of World War I trenches in Belgium, strolled around the site of the Battle of the Bulge, stood on the hill overlooking the Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon fought Wellington and 20,000 men died in one afternoon.

I spent a night in a big, creepy old hotel in the town of Verdun, a city that seemed to be one vast mausoleum, with a huge war memorial at one end of the Main Street, topped by a glowering, helmeted figure leaning on a sword. Near Verdun, which was the site of the most brutal and continuous shelling of World War I, there is a cemetery containing the remains of 130,000 unidentifiable, unknown soldiers, both German and French.

Visiting battlefields and military cemeteries is a very sobering experience, and it should be. We should never forget what war means, never glamorize it, never romanticize it, never enter into it blindly and carelessly. Visiting military cemeteries helps us remember that.

But what I’m afraid of is that war has now evolved in such brutal new ways that such formal, well-tended, sanctified burial sites have in a sense become obsolete. Even by the end of World War II, the lives of millions of people were ended without honor and bravery on the battlefield but in concentration camps or in the firestorms of bombed cities. The dead were buried not in neat and orderly rows in hallowed ground but under heaps of rubble or in mass graves.

And now, we hear that 500,000 people have been killed in the mindless warfare in Rwanda, just in the last few weeks. It’s not possible to dig 500,000 graves.

If war was ever a sane and manageable activity, it doesn’t seem to be so now. Wars used to be fought in fields, in trenches, in fox holes, on the sea, in the air. Now wars are fought in schools and hospitals and market places and refugee camps. Now there is no distinction between being a soldier and a civilian, between men and women, adults and children. All are slaughtered without conscience or hesitation.

In an era in which whole populations are involved in war, and military cemeteries are becoming obsolete, dare we hope that one day war will be obsolete, too?

Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish. She can be contacted at collins1@rushmore.com.

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