Sunday, June 07, 2009
Thoughts on the
THE PRESENT MATTERS TOO. I watched the D-Day proceedings in Normandy live yesterday, and I was divided about whether to comment on them or not. The occasion itself was moving, of course, as it cannot help but be, and it was sad that the usual ten year cycle of major commemorations was truncated this time because the surviving veterans of the battle are leaving us at such a rapid rate. It should be sufficient to watch and think one's own thoughts, including the irreverent ones that might be thought of as impertinent, even if they're not about the subject of the proceedings but the undeniably political supporting players.
For example, I found myself wondering: Why did Fox News Channel's Wendell Goiler refer TWICE to "work camps" at Buchenwald visited by President Obama rather than the "death camps" they were; is this a new inside-the-beltway locution the MSM will be using from now on (though Goler did tear up at the end of the ceremonies, bless his heart)? What's with the half yard of showy fruit salad on Prince Charles's civilian suitcoat? I know he was in the navy, but I don't remember him winning the battle of Midway single-handed... And with respect to Stephen Harper's speech: Why is it that Canadian French is so remarkably ugly, or is it just that it seems worse -- something like a Michigan high school French student's -- when you hear it in France? And about Gordon Brown's speech..."Obama Beach"? And Obama's speech...? Yes, I was immensely relieved that our president didn't apologize to the French for invading their country in 1944, but, uh, ahem... Well, maybe it's better to say nothing and leave the day to the people in whose honor it was celebrated.
So I didn't rush to the computer after the stirring rendition of Taps mantled the graves of the fallen with the usual mystical hypersilence. I felt it myself. I was going to let it be. (Is a trumpet as correct as a bugle for that valediction now? Stop It, IP.) Until I got a comment on what I'd intended as my compleat D-Day 2009 post. In it I'd referenced the book I'd read about D-Day as an eight or nine-year-old boy with an entreaty to today's parents to let their own children read it. The comment, from a man who calls himself Billy Oblivion, said this:
I'm sitting here in Baghdad, and one of my Co-workers is a former Army Ranger/101st Airborne type. He was here in 2003 and 2007 with the Army. He was talking today about being back in the states and having to listen to people whining "not having slept well last night", or some other pissant complaint while he still can't go to barbecues because every time he smells the cooking meat he can hear the guy on top of a burning APC crying for his mother as he burned to death and no one could get close enough to help because of the heat.
Or having to burn his BDUs because the blood on them wasn't his.
Or the time he had to carry his buddy legs back so that they could get all of him in the body bag.
I really don't understand what was so great about "The Greatest Generation" anyway. Was D-Day all that much worse than the trench warfare in WWI? Was it any any more stressful than doing daily combat patrols in Fallujah or Mosul--especially with the all seeing eye of the Moslem Propaganda machine waiting for the *slightest* thing that could be spun as a misstep?
I'm not trying to take away from what those men--and boys--did 65 years ago, but I think to put them up on such a pedestal somewhat belittles the sacrifices and efforts of today's soldiers.
Which really is even more why you shouldn't shield your children from what adults sometimes have to do. They may have to step up themselves some day, or sleep next to someone who did and who will sometimes wake up in the middle of the night sweaty and crying. [boldface mine]
I understand his bewilderment, his sense, however moderated by tact, of being offended. I asked myself what in yesterday's ceremonies would have ameliorated or exacerbated his prickliness about the subject. Some of both, I decided. Enough worth digging just a bit below the gloss of ritual into the subtleties that both refute and confirm the justice of Billy Oblivion's discontent.
The ceremonies and speeches yesterday did highlight what was so great about "The Greatest Generation." I suppose one could dismiss it as an accident of history, but it was really no accident. It was an unmistakable proof, something very rare in history, of the altruism of an entire nation. The circumstances that make it a proof in no way belittle the altruism displayed in other battles, other historical contexts. It's just that this is one which is absolutely, incontrovertibly undeniable to its beneficiaries. American armies, navies, airmen, and marines raised largely through the draft nevertheless had the courage, the extraordinary valor, to give up their lives in order to procure the liberation of peoples they knew almost nothing about before being sent to war on their behalf. The American military has done this countless times, of course, but this was the largest such engagement ever, and the one whose consequences simply couldn't be denied by the nations it helped.
If you're looking for grievances, many other members of the Greatest Generation could be offended by the disproportionate attention given to D-Day. Iwo Jima is not honored like this. Nor is the U.S. Eighth Army Air Corps, which experienced some of the highest U.S. casualties of the war. Russia is omitted from all such ceremonies, though its 8-million WWII dead dwarfed those of all the other nations allied against Germany combined. Much to its dismay, I'm sure, the U.S. Navy is ceremonially remembered more for its losses at Pearl Harbor than its astonishing string of victories in the Atlantic and the South Pacific. The horrifying losses of U.S. troops, over a hundred thousand in a half year of combat in WWI, have never been honored, not even in the United States, let alone in Europe, where everyone clings to the fantasy that they, not the Americans, won the Great War. Historical context matters.
What does this mean if you're in Baghdad now? It means you should listen to the obligatory components of the political speeches delivered more than half a century after the fact, because these are acknowledgments of moral debts that cannot be repaid, have never been repaid, and are not receiving even incremental payments of any kind in the current political environment. I admit I found Sarkoszy's speech moving, the only one that brought a tear to my eye all day. The French who live in Normandy are continuously grateful, which they prove by the meticulous condition of American graves. But France as a whole is an ungrateful bitch of a nation, and the poetry of a grateful speech intoned by that narcissist nation's leader cannot do anything but emphasize the ingratitide of the nation that will send only a handful of cooks to Afghanistan, no troops to Iraq, and might accept one prisoner from a Guantamo facility they pretend is akin to the concentration camps their collaborationist WWII government sent Jews to by the thousands.
The same goes for the U.K. and Canada. Sixty-five years ago, they may have been lions whose avowals of friendship meant something. Today, their rhetoric, where it isn't banal, is nonetheless utterly empty. If your friends are cowards and selfish rationalizers, they aren't friends at all. They're sweet-breathed vipers. The U.K. simply walked away from Iraq when their participation became too costly in the polls for the ruling Labour government. Canadians died heorically on D-Day, but their nation is wringing enormously outsized praise for the contributions of the 500 troops they've committed to combat in Afghanistan. Eternal friendship? Comrades in arms? Hardly. Parasites. Every word they utter at an occasion like yesterday's is an indictment of the crumbled character of their nations.
BUT. And I remind you, the question is, what's so great about the Greatest Generation? France, the U.K. and Canada still had to make their hypocritical speeches yesterday. Because the debt is so huge and obvious they have to run the risk of making themselves look like corrupt, empty parodies of their own past. Which is what they are. D-Day is an anchor in time they can't jerk loose from, however much they may want to. History has few powers of authority. This is one of them.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that if you're in Baghdad now, the D-Day vets are one of the very few ways of holding all the traitors' feet to the fire. They owe you the same way they owe the D-Day vets. For many of the same reasons. Don't disdain history. Count on it to rectify today's wrongs tomorrow through the passage of time.
And thus to our president's speech. The part of yesterday's proceedings that would make me even hotter than Billy Oblivion seems to be. I was grateful Obama didn't begin with all his family references to World War II. It was a becoming and highly unusual departure from his customary practice of beginning all public utterances with flattering references to himself. But he did still have to wedge it in. Still, there was plenty to object to in what he said and didn't say. Here's a full transcript, just to be fair. I've highlighted the passages I'll fisk. But fisk them I will.
June 6, 2009
Obama’s D-Day 65th Anniversary Remarks
Good afternoon. Thank you, President Sarkozy, Prime Minister Brown, Prime Minister Harper, and Prince Charles for being here today. Thank you to our Secretary of Veterans Affairs, General Eric Shinseki, for making the trip out here to join us. Thanks also to Susan Eisenhower, whose grandfather began this mission 65 years ago with a simple charge: "Ok, let's go." And to a World War II veteran who returned home from this war to serve a proud and distinguished career as a United States Senator and a national leader: Bob Dole. (Applause.)
I'm not the first American President to come and mark this anniversary, and I likely will not be the last. This is an event that has long brought to this coast both heads of state and grateful citizens; veterans and their loved ones; the liberated and their liberators. It's been written about and spoken of and depicted in countless books and films and speeches. And long after our time on this Earth has passed, one word will still bring forth the pride and awe of men and women who will never meet the heroes who sit before us: D-Day.
Why is this? Of all the battles in all the wars across the span of human history, why does this day hold such a revered place in our memory? What is it about the struggle that took place on the sands a few short steps from here that brings us back to remember year after year after year?
TRANSLATION: Damned if I know. Never cared much about it myself. So I did some research at Wikipedia. Here's the short course for everyone who hates history as much as I do. (It's okay. It's all written at a seventh grade level.)
Part of it, I think, is the size of the odds that weighed against success. For three centuries, no invader had ever been able to cross the English Channel into Normandy. And it had never been more difficult than in 1944.
That was the year that Hitler ordered his top field marshal to fortify the Atlantic Wall against a seaborne invasion. From the tip of Norway to southern France, the Nazis lined steep cliffs with machine guns and artillery. Low-lying areas were flooded to block passage. Sharpened poles awaited paratroopers. Mines were laid on the beaches and beneath the water. And by the time of the invasion, half a million Germans waited for the Allies along the coast between Holland and northern France.
At dawn on June 6th, the Allies came. The best chance for victory had been for the British Royal Air Corps to take out the guns on the cliffs while airborne divisions parachuted behind enemy lines. But all did not go according to plan. Paratroopers landed miles from their mark, while the fog and clouds prevented Allied planes from destroying the guns on the cliffs. So when the ships landed here at Omaha, an unimaginable hell rained down on the men inside. Many never made it out of the boats.
And yet, despite all of this, one by one, the Allied forces made their way to shore -- here, and at Utah and Juno; Gold and Sword. They were American, British, and Canadian. Soon, the paratroopers found each other and fought their way back. The Rangers scaled the cliffs. And by the end of the day, against all odds, the ground on which we stand was free once more.
COMMENT: "One by one"? "By the end of the day... free once more"? Movie imagery anyone? Well, not even good movie imagey. Even one viewing of "Saving Private Ryan" might have edited these comments out of the script. How about "hundred by hundred" and "clinging perilously to a foothold on the edge of a continent"?
The sheer improbability of this victory is part of what makes D-Day so memorable. It also arises from the clarity of purpose with which this war was waged.
We live in a world of competing beliefs and claims about what is true. It's a world of varied religions and cultures and forms of government. In such a world, it's all too rare for a struggle to emerge that speaks to something universal about humanity.
COMMENT: Yes, rare. Perhaps rare enough that we should be alert to it when it happens again.
The Second World War did that. No man who shed blood or lost a brother would say that war is good. But all know that this war was essential. For what we faced in Nazi totalitarianism was not just a battle of competing interests. It was a competing vision of humanity. Nazi ideology sought to subjugate and humiliate and exterminate. It perpetrated murder on a massive scale, fueled by a hatred of those who were deemed different and therefore inferior. It was evil.
COMMENT: Excuse me. I'm struggling here. Are you saying this was something unique about World War II? Something we haven't seen since? Like not in the Cold War or the War on Islamic Jihadists? Really? Could you repeat your description please? Pleeeease. "[N]ot just a battle of competing interests. It was a competing vision of humanity. Nazi ideology sought to subjugate and humiliate and exterminate. It perpetrated murder on a massive scale, fueled by a hatred of those who were deemed different and therefore inferior. It was evil." Oh, I get it. "Nazi" is different from, say, the Jew-hating middle eastern states who were allied with the Nazis in WWII and are still pursuing their selfsame genocidal aims? And adding all of us in as targets into the bargain? I get it. More targets translates to "interests" rather than "competing visions of humanity." Got it. It's no longer "evil" if you want to kill half the world. It's more like a referendum.
TRANSLATION: It's easy to hate Nazis. Look at those armbands. So conducive to misunderstandings. It's a lot harder now to jump to conclusions. Just because they tell you straight to your face that they hate you and want to kill you doesn't mean that you should take them at their word. My one big historical regret about this period is that no one gave Neville Chamberlain a chance to prevent the war through further negotiation.
The nations that joined together to defeat Hitler's Reich were not perfect. They had made their share of mistakes, had not always agreed with one another on every issue. But whatever God we prayed to, whatever our differences, we knew that the evil we faced had to be stopped. Citizens of all faiths and of no faith came to believe that we could not remain as bystanders to the savage perpetration of death and destruction. And so we joined and sent our sons to fight and often die so that men and women they never met might know what it is to be free.
COMMENT: A missed photo-op here. I for one would have been entranced by the on-camera recognition of the leader of the "Citizens of No Faith Opposed to Hitler" community action organization. It would have made my day.
In America, it was an endeavor that inspired a nation to action. A President who asked his country to pray on D-Day also asked its citizens to serve and sacrifice to make the invasion possible. On farms and in factories, millions of men and women worked three shifts a day, month after month, year after year. Trucks and tanks came from plants in Michigan and Indiana, New York and Illinois. Bombers and fighter planes rolled off assembly lines in Ohio and Kansas, where my grandmother did her part as an inspector. Shipyards on both coasts produced the largest fleet in history, including the landing craft from New Orleans that eventually made it here to Omaha.
TRANSLATION: All my voting constituencies were just as important as the redneck killers who stormed the beaches. Don't I remind you of FDR? How about when I turn this way? And I can take credit, too, for, you know, some of the actual work. Because even my racist grandmother helped out. BFD.
But despite all the years of planning and preparation, despite the inspiration of our leaders, the skill of our generals, the strength of our firepower and the unyielding support from our home front, the outcome of the entire struggle would ultimately rest on the success of one day in June.
Lyndon Johnson once said that there are certain moments when "history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom."
TRANSLATION: That's my cue. When any quote mentions "history," "fate," and ends with "at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point," it's a sign that we're talking about me, Barack Obama, a.k.a. "the One."
D-Day was such a moment. One newspaper noted that "we have come to the hour for which we were born."
TRANSLATION: Does this remind you of anything? "We are the Change we've been waiting for"? "I'm the Hope you were born to Change for"? "I'm the Hour into which you were born"? I've got a million of'em.
Had the Allies failed here, Hitler's occupation of this continent might have continued indefinitely. Instead, victory here secured a foothold in France. It opened a path to Berlin. It made possible the achievements that followed the liberation of Europe: the Marshall Plan, the NATO alliance, the shared prosperity and security that flowed from each.
It was unknowable then, but so much of the progress that would define the 20th century, on both sides of the Atlantic, came down to the battle for a slice of beach only six miles long and two miles wide.
COMMENT: I've never seen a slice of beach two miles wide. Cool. Well, he did it all without a teleprompter. Maybe he should get the "Legion d'Honneur."
TRANSLATION: D-Day made the world safe for government. You know. The stimulus spending of the Marshall Plan. The negotiated impotency of Nato. The shared prosperity that made Europe rich because American rednecks were paying for all the defense Europeans were too virtuous to admit they relied on.
More particularly, it came down to the men who landed here -- those who now rest in this place for eternity, and those who are with us here today. Perhaps more than any other reason, you, the veterans of that landing, are why we still remember what happened on D-Day. You're why we keep coming back.
TRANSLATION: I won't have to do this in my second term. Allah be praised.
For you remind us that in the end, human destiny is not determined by forces beyond our control. You remind us that our future is not shaped by mere chance or circumstance. Our history has always been the sum total of the choices made and the actions taken by each individual man and woman. It has always been up to us.
You could have done what Hitler believed you would do when you arrived here. In the face of a merciless assault from these cliffs, you could have idled the boats offshore. Amid a barrage of tracer bullets that lit the night sky, you could have stayed in those planes. You could have hid in the hedgerows or waited behind the seawall. You could have done only what was necessary to ensure your own survival.
TRANSLATION: You stupid rednecks.
But that's not what you did. That's not the story you told on D-Day. Your story was written by men like Zane Schlemmer of the 82nd Airborne, who parachuted into a dark marsh, far from his objective and his men. Lost and alone, he still managed to fight his way through the gunfire and help liberate the town in which he landed -- a town where a street now bears his name.
It's a story written by men like Anthony Ruggiero, an Army Ranger who saw half the men on his landing craft drown when it was hit by shellfire just a thousand yards off this beach. He spent three hours in freezing water, and was one of only 90 Rangers to survive out of the 225 who were sent to scale the cliffs.
And it's a story written by so many who are no longer with us, like Carlton Barrett. Private Barrett was only supposed to serve as a guide for the 1st Infantry Division, but he instead became one of its heroes. After wading ashore in neck-deep water, he returned to the water again and again and again to save his wounded and drowning comrades. And under the heaviest possible enemy fire, he carried them to safety. He carried them in his own arms.
TRANSLATION: You know, I'm a better orator than Ronald Reagan ever thought of being. I am absolutely going to jump me some Rahm Emmanuel ass when I get back to DC and put an end to this crap of pretending that presidents care what individual proles did on this or that date under whatever misbegotten understanding they had of the political impacts of their stupid individual decisions. If I had a teleprompter instead of a script I could just smile here, acknowledge some ho fainting in the audience at the sight of me, and wait for the next big oratorical generality. Take a note: fire everyone on the speechwriting staff who's ever even heard of Peggy Noonan. And no, I am NOT reutrning her calls. Ever.
This is the story of the Allied victory. It's the legend of units like Easy Company and the All-American 82nd. It's the tale of the British people, whose courage during the Blitz forced Hitler to call off the invasion of England; the Canadians, who came even though they were never attacked; the Russians, who sustained some of the war's heaviest casualties on the Eastern front; and all those French men and women who would rather have died resisting tyranny than lived within its grasp.
It is the memories that have been passed on to so many of us about the service or sacrifice of a friend or relative. For me, it is my grandfather, Stanley Dunham, who arrived on this beach six weeks after D-Day and marched across Europe in Patton's Army. And it is my great uncle who was part of the first American division to reach and liberate a Nazi concentration camp. His name is Charles Payne, and I'm so proud that he's with us here today.
TRANSLATION: Whew. Almost two paragraphs without a personal pronoun. Don't they know who I am? uh, who is Charles Payne again?
I know this trip doesn't get any easier as the years pass, but for those of you who make it, there's nothing that could keep you away. One such veteran, a man named Jim Norene, was a member of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Division of the 101st Airborne. Last night, after visiting this cemetery for one last time, he passed away in his sleep. Jim was gravely ill when he left his home, and he knew that he might not return. But just as he did 65 years ago, he came anyway. May he now rest in peace with the boys he once bled with, and may his family always find solace in the heroism he showed here.
In the end, Jim Norene came back to Normandy for the same reason we all come back. He came for the reason articulated by Howard Huebner, another former paratrooper who is here with us today. When asked why he made the trip, Howard said, "It's important that we tell our stories. It doesn't have to be something big -- just a little story about what happened -- so people don't forget."
So people don't forget.
TRANSLATION: That better be a medium closeup. If I'm not going to cry for some uncle I never met. I'm not gonna cry for any of these other old relics. I DO NOT CRY ON CAMERA. (Hasn't anybody noticed? Yet? I'm the Iceman.) ) But the guy who ever proves it is fired. Besides, I'm getting ready for the big oratorical blockbuster close:
Friends and veterans, we cannot forget. What we must not forget is that D-Day was a time and a place where the bravery and the selflessness of a few was able to change the course of an entire century. At an hour of maximum danger, amid the bleakest of circumstances, men who thought themselves ordinary found within themselves the ability to do something extraordinary. They fought for their moms and sweethearts back home, for the fellow warriors they came to know as brothers. And they fought out of a simple sense of duty -- a duty sustained by the same ideals for which their countrymen had once fought and bled for over two centuries.
That is the story of Normandy -- but also the story of America; of the Minutemen who gathered on a green in Lexington; of the Union boys from Maine who repelled a charge at Gettysburg; of the men who gave their last full measure of devotion at Inchon and Khe San **********; of all the young men and women whose valor and goodness still carry forward this legacy of service and sacrifice. It's a story that has never come easy, but one that always gives us hope. For as we face down the hardships and struggles of our time, and arrive at that hour for which we were born, we cannot help but draw strength from those moments in history when the best among us were somehow able to swallow their fears and secure a beachhead on an unforgiving shore. [boldface mine]
COMMENT: Yeah. I added the row of asterisks. How about "the men who gave their last full measure of devotion" at Tora Bora and Fallujah? They didn't do it as part of a war against "a competing vision of humanity"? A vision of humanity that involves not only killing every single Jew on earth, but also executing homosexuals, disfiguring women, enslaving them, and sexually maiming them as part of their plan to hurl the civilized world back to the darkness of pre-Christian unconsciousness. That would be a mere political "interest" smart post-Christians can negotiate with.
To those men who achieved that victory 65 years ago, we thank you for your service. May God bless you, and may God bless the memory of all those who rest here.
uh, do they rest? Is this what they fought for?
Don't resent the D-Day vets, Billy. My guess is, they're every bit as pissed off in their graves as your friends are in Baghdad.
They are part of your army, the authoritative legacy of history. They were great. So are you. But they didn't have such a lonely fight, so unappreciated, so cast in shadow. That's not their fault. Use the light of the remembered ones to burn the darkness of your detractors, not cremate the tombs of your fathers.