By Elizabeth Shackelford
I recently visited the beaches of Normandy and marveled at the scale of what happened there 78 years ago. The sheer horror that it must have been is hard to capture in words, but the scars are still visible.
Dozens of massive craters dot the fields. The landscape is interspersed with German fortifications reinforced with concrete two meters thick. Huge tangles of metal debris, part of the port constructions used to transport half a million soldiers and cargo, are still strewn across the beaches and protrude from the water, rusting right next to quaint French coastal towns.
It was a massive operation. More than 1,000 planes dropped 23,000 paratroopers behind German lines in the dark amid incoming fire just after midnight. At dawn, 73,000 Americans joined about 80,000 other Allied troops to storm the beaches along 50 miles of coastline.
The morning was cool and the water colder. Soldiers carrying nearly 75 pounds of gear each fought their way through rough seas to reach a treacherous shore where they would then sail over pickets, metal beams and landmines, as the Nazis rained down fire on them. Many would die there or further inland as the battle continued.
How do you motivate someone to do it? And what would compel someone to ask so many people?
These questions were on my mind when I learned of the death of Bradford Freeman, the last living member of the Band of Brothers company who parachuted into Normandy on D-Day. We also lost Hershel “Woody” Williams, the last recipient of the World War II Medal of Honor.
More than 16 million Americans served in World War II. But we are beginning to lose the very last veterans of this war, one of the few we have fought in our history that we can confidently call righteous.
What lessons should we learn from the greatest generation before it is gone?
I often wonder what my grandfather, an American Marine who served in the Pacific, would say. His photos faded into jungle scenes were intriguing but revealed little, let alone talked about. He died when I was young, long haunted by what was called “shell shock” at the time.
I imagine that he, and many others of his generation, would tell us that war is so horrible that it must be avoided at all costs. But if it’s something so vital that you just have to fight for it, you better be ready to give it your all.
In many ways, it’s the story of America’s involvement in World War II. We entered reluctantly, forced by the circumstances of a direct attack on our homeland. We responded with everything we had, and it transformed a culture and an economy for generations.
The invasion of Normandy was the ugly and painful crowning of this response. The logistics were mind-boggling and the plan bold. But nothing less could reverse the war and save Europe, and the world, from the march of totalitarianism.
In many wars we have fought since, we have strayed from these parameters. We fought wars that were unnecessary and even detrimental to American security and prosperity. It shouldn’t be surprising that we’ve tended to lose these choice wars. It’s harder to fight effectively if it’s unclear what you’re fighting for.
So what lessons might this offer us today? The war in Ukraine is a good test. The fight came to the Ukrainian people – they had little choice. We do not face a similar existential threat today, and so have wisely avoided extending this terrible war beyond Ukraine by directly involving ourselves in the fight.
But sometimes not getting into a war isn’t enough. The United States and our allies must sometimes take the necessary steps to deter such aggression. This is the case with Ukraine, and that means using all the tools at our disposal, other than going to war, to help Ukraine succeed.
If Putin’s violent land grab in Europe succeeds instead, the international system we helped build and from which we benefit will be deeply undermined.
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