Friday, June 5, 2009

D-Day June 6th, 1944 -- Still the Stuff of Homer 65 Years On

Saturday is June 6th, the 65th anniversary of the Allied Invasion of Hitler's "Fortress Europe." Perhaps not since the Greeks sailed against Troy had the world seen an invasion fleet as large. Indeed, Agamemnon and Odysseus could not have conceived of such a force even in their wildest dreams. And paratroopers, filling the night skies in their thousands, would have struck the Greeks as if the gods themselves had come to join the battle.

Many an Achilleus and Hektor fought and perished that day, and the days, weeks and months that followed. There were heroes on both sides, and some villains too, but any glory or honor the German forces won by their battlefield exploits and warrior élan is forever tainted by the evil cause they served. Oh one might make a case for nobility of an individual soldier, even among the members of the Waffen-SS, but there is no redemption for the larger group or the master they followed.

General Eisenhower called it the “Great Crusade” and indeed it was a crusade after a fashion. Others have seen that June day in terms truly Homeric, and that too is certainly true. German Fieldmarshal Erwin Rommel said the invasion would be “The Longest Day” and so it was.

We who now sit comfortably in the present, 65 years later, can but imagine what it was like that day, jumping out of a plane into the dark and an uncertain landing or bobbing up and down in a landing craft waiting for the ramp to drop and rushing into an almost certain death on the beaches of Normandy.

Some of us actually know someone who was there: a grandfather or an uncle or a friend of the family. That they survived at all, let along went on to win a stunning victory is nothing short of miraculous.

For those who enjoy their History via Hollywood one can do no better than the 1962 Darryl F Zanuck film The Longest Day. Yes, Spielberg’s film, Saving Private Ryan, is more popular and certainly more visceral, but in terms of historic authenticity it rather pales before Zanuck’s old Hollywood warhorse.

I remember well the first time I watched The Longest Day for it was the only time that I can recall my father actually going to a theatre to watch a movie. There was to be a special screening of the film at Walter Reed for service members and their families. My father, who was stationed at Walter Reed, made a point of gathering us up and driving from our home in Wheaton Maryland to the post theatre for the showing. Although my father had served in World War Two he reached Europe, as an infantry officer, after the Battle of the Bulge. Even so many of the soldiers he served with were veterans of that invasion and for reasons he did not articulate he thought it important that we see this film. Not surprisingly, at age 7 the film made a big impression on me, and still does every time I watch it.

Of course it must be remembered that in 1962 most of the veterans of the D-Day landings were still alive, whereas by 1998 when Spielberg released his D-Day opus World War Two was ancient history and barely remembered by the vast movie viewing public. With this in mind Spielberg concentrated on the story in the trenches so to speak. Zanuck’s audience, on the other hand, already knew that story – they had lived it. What they might not know about, and what The Longest Day tells so well, was the story-taking place above their heads and above their pay grades. How the officers on both sides blundered about and how victory, for either side, was decided as much by chance as it was by skill or courage.

This is not to degrade by any means the courage displayed that day by the soldiers on both sides. It was a day when “uncommon valor was common.” However all soldiers know that luck on the battlefield is a commodity not to be underestimated. As Julius Caesar once observed when considering a highly recommended officer for promotion to general, “Yes, I know he is good, but is he lucky?”

On that day long ago, June 6th, 1944, a little luck backed by immense courage carried the day for the Allies and the world saw not the beginning of the end to Hitler and World War Two, but certainly the end of the beginning of our march to victory.