Voices from the war

On June 6th, 1944, over one million Allied troops stormed the beaches of the French coast at Normandy, in what would become the first phase of a massive assault designed to bring the Third Reich to its knees. It was an invasion that could easily have failed- indeed, General Eisenhower was so worried about its potential for absolutely catastrophic failure that he wrote a short speech taking full responsibility for that possibility, just in case.

Nobody really knows how many men died that day, charging through the pounding surf into the very teeth of the German defensive lines on the cliffs above Omaha Beach and other sectors; over 4,000 are confirmed to have died, with total casualties estimated at over 10,000. But it is almost certain that true losses were far higher.

In the cold mathematics of war, a 1% loss ratio taken for the purpose of establishing a beachhead into which to pour additional troops and supplies was a small price. But in human terms, the cost was severe and terrible. Men waded in through cold surf watching their brothers-in-arms being scythed down by German machine gun nests, blown apart by mines, caught and pinned on barbed wire and iron fences, or simply drowned in the choppy waters by the sheer weight of their gear.

The Greatest Generation earned its name that day, as it had throughout the war. They did what they had to do. They stepped up and went forth to defend their civilisation, their friends, their brothers, their families. They fought, they bled, and they died. Those that made it back kept quiet about the horrors that they had seen, and did the best that they could to pick up the pieces of the lives that they had left behind.

There are few of those great men left, and there are fewer every year. Their strength, their courage, their decency, and their willingness to do what had to be done, grows dimmer with the passage of time; not for nothing did General Macarthur say, "old soldiers never die, they simply fade away". The memories of what they had to do are long gone for my generation; for the one after me, the horrors of WWII are a mere historical curiosity, a grotesque artifact of a grotesque century in which the full madness of the progressive mind was let loose upon an afflicted Mankind.

But those few who are left still have lessons to teach us, and still have important stories to share. They are stories of triumph and loss, of human decency and inhuman brutality, of courage and terror, of bonds of brotherhood forged in the terrible crucible of war:
A point made by both D-Day veterans and historians is that D-Day was the beginning of a long and difficult struggle, whose end was nowhere in sight on the day the invasion began. McCalment recalled the Augusta providing fire support for General George Patton himself a few weeks later, when Patton needed help with some German tanks. 
91-year-old Robert Levine of Teaneck, New Jersey was 19 when he came ashore on Utah Beach. On the far side of Hill 122, retreating Germans ambushed his unit, filled his leg with shrapnel from a grenade, and took him prisoner. Then he got hit by shrapnel from the very same American mortar shells he had been delivering to forward positions at the time of his capture. 
He woke up on the kitchen table of a French farmhouse that had been pressed into service as a German field hospital. 
“For you, the war is over,” said a German military doctor, as he prepared to amputate Levine’s leg. Then the doctor noticed the letter “H” stamped on the prisoner’s dog tags… identifying him as Hebrew. 
"I had just turned 19, and I thought that was the end for me. I was never going to see my 20th birthday, I knew it,” he recalled. 
To his astonishment, he woke up in an improvised recovery room, without his injured leg – or his dog tags. The German doctor hid the tags to conceal Levine’s identity. 
“That’s the second way he saved my life,” Levine said.
The Greatest Generation's voices still speak to us, every year on D-Day, urging us to remember what they fought and died for, and warning us to remember why they had to fight- so that we will not repeat their mistakes.

We are perilously close to ignoring those voices. And it will be to our own great sorrow if we fail to heed the lessons that they have to teach us.

So spare a thought on this day for those who died that day. To paraphrase Robert A. Heinlein's immortal words in Starship Troopers, they endured the noblest fate that a man can endure; they placed their mortal bodies between their loved homes, and war's desolation. Though they did not know it, they died for victory; the long and ghastly struggle was, at the last, won.

HAIL the victorious dead!


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