We think we know D-Day on its 75th anniversary, but remembering the forgotten civilian victims reminds us of the overlooked costs of war and offers lessons for today.
In 1979 I was a freshly minted college grad hitchhiking around Normandy, France, near the D-Day landing beaches. The 35th anniversary of the Allied invasion of France, D-Day, June 6, 1944, had just passed and the French people I met welcomed an American in their midst. I was about the same age as my father was when, as a soldier in the U.S. First Army, he had advanced through France and Belgium and on into Germany, to victory in World War II.
Despite the many glasses of Calvados I didn’t have to pay for at cafés in the towns where I stopped, at the time I couldn’t have told my new French friends where my father had been during World War II. The same could be said for many of my friends back home. Our fathers didn’t talk a lot about what they went through in the war.
Thinking back to my travels around Normandy, one of the odd things was that there were so few other Americans there to mark a big D-Day anniversary. Tour companies and towns in England had advertised for former GIs to come back, but not many took up the offer. And France didn’t lay out the red carpet for returning Allied invaders like it does today.
On D-Day plus 35 years, not one world leader showed up to mark the day. The biggest commemorative event took place at Pointe du Hoc, the promontory cliffs which U.S. Army Rangers heroically scaled to knock out German artillery positions between the Utah and Omaha landing beaches. The elderly General Omar Bradley, who led U.S. Army forces during preparation for the landings, Operation Neptune, and commanded the First Army for the invasion of Normandy, Overlord, rolled out by wheelchair.
He made a few dedicatory remarks at the new Ranger Dagger monument at the site. A wreath-laying ceremony was also held at a Canadian cemetery outside Caen, and a small parade of World War II-vintage jeeps and other military vehicles and soldiers ran through the narrow streets of Bayeux. (You can watch the video from the events here.) American media coverage was equally sparse, just a photo of a frail-looking General Bradley with a caption on the front page of The New York Times. That was pretty much it.
How things have changed. For the 75th anniversary of D-Day coming up, world leaders including President Donald Trump will have plenty to say while tens of thousands of Americans and others from what had once been the Allied nations will arrive in a second invasion that will overwhelm Normandy to a degree unseen in, well, 75 years.
They’re coming of course to show their gratitude for the bloody and heroic actions that day when the liberation of France and the final defeat of Nazi Germany began. They’ll also be there to participate, if only by their presence on that hallowed ground, in a shared-sense mission and purpose, to celebrate what their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers achieved there.
But such nostalgia for D-Day and all it meant for ridding the world of the brutality of Nazism can mask the hidden costs of the liberation of Europe. Not thinking through fully what took place during the invasion of Normandy has led America to think of it as a model for other wars since seemingly intended to rid the world of other brutal, Hitler-like dictators.
The Missing Victims of D-Day
We think we know D-Day. The greatest sea invasion in history is the most studied battle in the history of warfare. It appears no detail of the run-up to D-Day, the day of battle, and the taking of Normandy over three months after D-Day, cannot be re-explored and retold. Just this month, at least three major new D-Day books have appeared. They include Ian Kershaw’s very readable The First Wave, James Holland’s lively, more British-centric and, at 720 pages, more comprehensive Normandy ’44, and, at 1,072 pages heavier than some artillery shells, Peter Caddick-Adams’s monumentally detailed Sand and Steel.
We also think we have a good mental picture of the fighting that took place. The many documentaries and fictionalized movies and television series, including The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan, and Band of Brothers, make D-Day also perhaps the most visually depicted battle in history.