The Most Exalting Day

Television will be full of reports this weekend of the festivities surrounding the 60th anniversary of D-Day. This has me thinking of why we still talk about the invasion, why television news producers are certain we are interested, and why the programmers of movie channels believe we will want to see “The Longest Day” again, and “Saving Private Ryan.”

The Normandy invasion was a great moment in history (brave men joining together to do the right thing) and a definitive moment (the Nazi hold on Europe was loosed; in less than a year Berlin would fall). These are reasons enough.

But there is this, too: We are human and love stories that show humanity as brave and selfless. It exalts us. We need to be exalted. It is hard to get up in the morning and pull on your socks and enter the day. It is hard to be a bus driver. But it is easier when you can think better of your passengers.

When you think man isn’t much, when you think human beings are pretty low as beings go, it leaches love from you. It leaches love from your soul when you think we’re all nothing much, we’re dust in the wind, it’s dog eat dog. When you can see us as more than that, it helps you enter each day. It helps you live. We think about D-Day, and Harry the King at Agincourt, and George Meade at Gettysburg, to help us live.

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Once a sociologist had a wonderful idea. He asked soldiers just in from battles what their first thought was when they saw a nearby soldier shot. This is what they reported they thought: I didn’t get shot. Not Poor Joe, or Where is the sniper? or If Joe bought it I better move, but I didn’t get shot. The second and third thoughts were different, but the first was relief: I am alive.

When a doctor told me of this I thought: Yes, that is us. We’re all like that. And it’s not so bad. We are human and imperfect. We’re damaged.

And we think of the imperfect and damaged humans of D-Day, people like us, made of the same clay. Only we’re not clay, we’re more than that. They held the line, took the hits, moved the line forward, bought that real estate, paid for it in blood, burrowed in, defeated their fear, pushed aside their egotism, took back a continent. And at least one old dazed French farmer, according to the book and movie of Cornelius Ryan’s great popular history “The Longest Day,” walked through the shooting and on to the beach carrying a bottle of Calvados to give to France’s liberators. And that is part of the human story too.

The men of D-Day had their “I didn’t get shot” moments and pushed forward anyway. They didn’t run—”I’m pushing my luck!”—they stood their ground.

This is very moving. And it is a good thing for us to remember about ourselves.

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There’s a lot of talk again, windy and mindless talk by or professional talkers, that we are marking D-Day with such great attention because we are baby boomers, and by definition inadequate, not members of a greatest generation. We were handed an easy ride by history: we must tip our hats.

Well, of course we should tip our hats, but not to a generation. To individuals. To the wonderful men who took the beach, and other beaches, some of whom still hold those beach heads, in World War II. A lot of Boomers—not all by any means, for many of them have had terrible adversity, and are unknown heroes—got a relatively good ride for a relatively long time. But history isn’t kind forever. Those young jogging gray-heads who are 50 now and running the networks and the schools and the Army: history has given them a job and will give them a job, and it will not be a job for sissies. Don’t write them off until their work is done.