To watch the gentle waves timelessly crest against the quiet beach sands, it must seem to be all about inevitability. From our venue, we see a open serenity, with a path through the cove of the cliff leading to the beach below and it seems inevitable, that like the rising tide we would leave the beach to the environs within through this peaceful cove, up this quiet cliff. Like the countless beaches the world over, the endless communication of the sea to the land takes place every day all day in peaceful solitary. As it was. As it is. As it ever will be.
The serene beauty only becomes haunting and and laced with trepidation if we look down from our visage and recognize the beach is French, located in the Provence of Normandy, and has held an attached moniker for almost seventy years- as the beach known as Omaha.
This week marked the 69th anniversary of the moment when powerful forces of light and darkness clashed at this very spot and determined that inevitability would be defined by the winner and suffered by the loser, at the cost of great death and destructive violence. The cove leading up from the beach would be littered with bodies of men who were pushing up against the scythe of Death himself, against the will and lives of men who were determined to throw them back into the sea. For someone 20 years old today, the drive up this path would have been led by men who were the father to their grandfather if they somehow survived the dash up the cliff, so long ago are the events of that day. So long ago that it seems inevitable to believe, that the forces of freedom and individual liberty were overwhelming, and that victory was assured over the forces of evil. So long ago, that we see newsreels and read books regarding that day and see it as if in a movie or a fairytale, with snapshots of action that seem out of an ancient silent time, almost dramaless in its quiet inevitability. First the scenes of the soldiers in preparation, then the boats slowly unloading, a few soldiers traversing the beach, a few dropping silently, quiet puffs of smoke, then cheering French crowds. It all seems inevitable, a good action story, with a happy ending.
For the generation alive actually lived it, they know there was nothing inevitable about the ending. For 5 years the entire world had been sucked into the blistering vortex of a battle between two diametrically opposed visions of humanity. A totalitarian behemoth held most of Europe and the cliffs of Omaha beach, driven by dual passions of powerful efficiency and bottomless hatred, under the assumption that an ordered world ruled by an all powerful state and a superior race, was the pinnacle of human advancement. Attempting to gain a foothold on the continent was a messy alliance of diversified races and religions, bonded only by their sense that a society that celebrated individual liberty and personal freedom of action were the perfected outcome of 3000 years of civilizational development and adversity.
5 years of hellacious conflict was compressed into a moment in time at 630 am June 6th, 1944, as the first troops unloaded on the beaches at Omaha and four other beaches of the Normandy coast to attempt to settle the issue as to the superior societal version. The Allied forces had coalesced for two years on the British Isles collecting in massive amounts the means of war, training hundreds of thousands of men, thousands of ships and planes and endless hours of planning to attempt the largest amphibious landing in the history of conflict. The goal was to land 165,000 men securely on the French coast in 12 hours, cracking the “impenetrable” Atlantic Wall devised by Nazi soldiers and engineers. Previous allied attempts to deliver sea, air, and land forces in a coordinated fashion against the German defenses had proved bloody and disastrous in the landings at Dieppe in 1942 and the beaches of Anzio in January 1944, with much smaller scale and complexity. Failure of such a spectacular investment in men and material gambled in the landings at Normandy would likely have required years of retrenchment before another attempt, if ever. A successful push of the landing force back into the sea would have likely allowed Nazi troops to reorient towards the east and likely stalemate Russian forces, probably securing the permanence of a Nazi Europe.
The story of such immense forces would be told in future celebration by the forces of good only because of the individual will of every soldier that stormed the beach that morning. In particular at Omaha Beach, there was every reason to give in to defeat. Three hours into the landing thousands of soldiers lay dead on the beach and the waters behind, with the few survivors clinging to a breakwall under a withering hail of shrapnel, and the American commander Bradley contemplating abandoning the beach. So broken was the plan, that the impetus that allowed the surviving beach officers to drive their men forward, was the appeal that the chances of dying were less attempting a charge up the cliffs under fire then they were huddled behind a wall of bodies on the beach. Better to be a moving duck, then a sitting duck. One by one, men decided they were dead anyway, and decided to push up the coves against the machine gun and mortar fire. One by one, the coves were taken, then the hills then the cliff and finally the pillboxes and machine gun nests. The allied deaths on Omaha were so appalling that for years after, the official toll was reported by authorities as 2500, so as not to devastate the public knowledge of the butcher’s bill. It seems the truth, that over 5000 casualties incurred on the beach on that one morning at Omaha, had to wait until sons of the fighting fathers were grandfathers themselves.
Somehow, what had never been successfully done before, in much smaller and less complex fashion, succeeded that day at Normandy, and changed the world on its axis. It turned out that it was not the clash of civilizational will that Hitler was counting on that won the day. It was something he could never have contemplated, the role a free man feels he plays in making his own destiny. The soldier that Hitler was counting on, the American soldier softened by easy society and lacking in discipline who would prove weak under the stress of fire, existed only in his fantasy. The reason that the cliffs were taken that day is perhaps personified in the story of one man, Private Hal Baumgarten, who determined to fight his own war against Hitler. Baumgarten, a Jewish college student at New York University, volunteered for infantry, when he saw how poorly Jews were treated in Hitler’s Germany. Knowing the consequences of a Jewish soldier potentially being captured by Germans, American military authorities recommended that Jews not put their religion on their dogtags. Baumgarten decided not only to list Jewish as his religion on his dogtags, but to have a large Star of David placed on the front and back of his army field jacket beneath the words The Bronx New York, because he wanted ‘the bastards to know exactly who they were shooting at and who was coming to get them’. A single man defending his free will proved sufficient to crack an impenetrable wall of collective obedience.
We are coming to the end of those who personal remembrances of how awful it was, how uncertain it was, and how close it came to extinguishing liberty’s light forever. The current populations of free societies now willingly give up their freedom and personal privacy without a whimper, and could not conceive of what D-Day soldier felt as he left the landing craft. Our personal Atlantic Wall of hard earned freedoms are proving as porous as the supposed impenetrable wall constructed by the Germans so long ago. Our own government has declared war on those who would articulate the value system of our Constitution and proselytize it to others less aware. In honor of Private Baumgarten, we should “wear” the Constitution and the acquired freedoms he and others sacrificed so much to preserve on our sleeves, and make sure the bastards know exactly who they are shooting at, and who’s coming to get them.