For years I honestly didn't understand the difference between Memorial Day and Veteran's Day. The fact that the former honors the brave men and women who have died during military service, while the latter recognizes all veterans of the armed forces, living or dead, was a distinction that had always been quite lost on me, even though my own mother had served in the army.
Being old enough to remember crying like a babe in arms during Saving Private Ryan but too young to recall any family member who had actually fought in the last World War, the full gravity of the pivotal conflict had never really occurred to me beyond what had been conveyed by textbooks and films. Of course I understood the import of what had occurred during World War II but I hadn't actually connected to it. That is, until I stood on the shores of Normandy at Caen and looked out over the beaches where Allied troops clashed with German military forces nearly 70 years ago in what would be the decisive battle of the war.
When I arrived in Normandy after an hour long train ride from Paris, visits to the D-Day beaches and war memorials had been on my list of "to dos" but, if I'm honest, they weren't at the top of that list or even close to it. I first wanted to visit the horse track and shop the chic boutiques in Deauville, to explore Étretat and the cliffs that had so inspired Monet and to experience the enduring majesty of Mont St. Michel.
I wanted to drift around the scenic port of Honfleur, sample Calvados in Breuil-en-Auge, stroll Claude Monet's mythical gardens in Giverny and dine at France's oldest inn, La Couronne (which is perhaps most famous to us Americans nowadays as the place where the late Julia Child enjoyed her first meal in France). Thankfully I got to do all of those things, but none of them left as lasting or arresting an impression as my visit to the Caen War Memorial and the sight of Utah Beach, Omaha Beach and the American cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer.
A moving film about the D-Day landings, made up of archives and extracts from fictional films, served as my introduction to the Caen Memorial Museum and set the tone for my visit. By the end of the film I was already teary-eyed, because the film and the exhibits made the war so real. This version of events was not a sanitized, testosterone driven account of a historic battle. This was instead real life human drama played out with news reels from wartime, the voices of the actual players and the faces of men who left their families and gave their lives in service to their country because they believed it was the right thing to do.
I abhor war, but as my eyes swelled with tears outside that poignant memorial, my heart also swelled with pride. While I cried at the sight of the 9,387 perfectly aligned tombstones spread out over 173 acres of the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, I also felt a deep sense of gratitude for the sacrifice these soldiers made in a way that I had never felt it before. I finally connected.
I would dare anyone to stand on the cliffs above Omaha Beach and not appreciate the courage it took for the soldiers who landed in Normandy on that fateful day back in 1944 to leave their battleships, knowing that for many of them doing so would mean certain, if not immediate, death. Their ghosts haunt these cliffs as does the scourge of battle. That such a naturally beautiful and peaceful place should also be associated with such tragedy and inhumanity is almost incongruous. And yet the connection between the two seems anything but tenuous.
I left that memorial and those beaches with an odd combination of melancholy and hope in my heart. I was sad because of the knowledge that following a horrendous war that had been sparked by a dictator and filled with unspeakably horrible atrocities and loss of life, we are still, 70 year later, at war with dictators who inflict unspeakably horrible atrocities on innocent people.
I was also sad at my questioning of whether the aim of our current conflicts is as heroic, pure or even as clear cut, as was the goal of liberating Europe in World War II. I wondered if we are as brave a nation as we once were? Are we as selfless in this era of utter self-involvement? The obvious answer is probably yes and no, particularly when one weights the fact that my notions of last World War still bear the benefit of the romanticized re-tellings that I have absorbed with interest over the years.
However, despite my sadness I was also happy. Happy that the stain of war spawned a peace that has for the most part endured, but even happier that there is a Normandy and a heartwrenching memorial to remind us that war is an ugly, painful business that should always be the course of last resort rather than the first. Let us always remember, so that we can strive to do better. Let us never forget, lest we repeat.