Yesterday, as it was well trumpeted world-wide, was the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
Ten years ago I remember well the 60th anniversary commemorations. I was in France at the time on holiday. I can recall buying an edition of the International Herald Tribune (as it was then) at a railway station. It was full of reports on world leaders of the time – Bush, Blair, Chirac, etc – getting together on the beaches of Normandy along with the veterans to solemnly commemorate the occasion. On the train going somewhere – south I think – I read through a lift-out which had stories of D-Day then and after. For a military buff it was fascinating stuff. I kept the lift-out and took it home with me when I returned to Melbourne weeks later. I still have it somewhere.
Where you’re an Anglophone travelling the TV rarely comes on, but when it does the ubiquitous BBC is a popular destination. When we turned on the TV in those days it was all about D-Day, amid reports of the French Open. I have scattered memories of that, sitting in small hotels or catching glimpses of it in bars we frequented. That’s not long after I started writing this blog, and for all I know I wrote something of that then.
Last night after working late I returned to where I am living and after everyone had gone to bed watched some TV. No matter what time it is I need something to wind down after work. TV is the simple, passive experience, a bit like a decompression chamber that attunes me to the environment.
It should not have been a surprise to find there was a heavy focus on programs referencing D-Day. On one station there was The Longest Day, a movie I remember watching raptly as a child 30 odd years ago. I got the book by Cornelius Ryan as a Christmas present one year, and read it through the summer holidays with my family. On another station was a freshly made documentary on the action of June 6, 1944.
I didn’t intend to watch the documentary, but got caught up in it, as you do. Though it’s an old and much analysed subject this documentary seemed fresh. There were the usual interviews with veterans and survivors of the day, but what was different is that the raw brutality of the battle – perhaps toned down in earlier productions – was here made plain.
There were tales aplenty about the grisly end of combatants – a man cut in half by a mine, others immolated in their own flame-throwers as German bullets struck, a story told of a shell striking a landing craft and how everyone was rained with body parts. And so on. This was the non-PG version of the truth, glimpsed first perhaps in Saving Private Ryan. Raw truth like this makes things more immediate, no matter how many years have passed. These are not the reminiscences of old and brave codgers, but real things with real consequences.
Few of us will ever experience anything close to that. It’s almost unimaginable that we might. Occasionally in watching programs like this there is a moment of wonder as we consider what it might be in the others shoes. How terrifying must it be to be shot at? How would I cope? What does it feel like to have the brains of my mate beside me spattered across my face?
I use the word perspective way too much in this place. There is perspective, and there is perspective. Most of us have challenges, and some of them are pretty extreme – but few of us have people trying to kill us. That’s perspective. I’m pretty comfortable in thinking I’ll live to fight another day. It’s pretty clear that on D-Day that’s something few were confident about.
It’s customary to call the veterans of great and momentous battles like this heroes. When the hyperbole gets into overdrive they’ll often be called defenders of liberty or some such.
I don’t see them as heroes. I know that will be controversial to some. I think they were brave men who did a job. I think that’s probably what they would say themselves. They did heroic things, but to ascribe to them the mythic status of heroes does them some disrespect. It takes from them their modest ordinariness. They were common folk called upon to do uncommon things, and did it without shirking. They did the right thing without thought of being the ‘heroes’ of folk-lore. For me I find that a lot more inspiring.
To add further to the controversy let me go further. Put aside politics and causes, and the truth is that there is heroism on every side, the Germans here, as well as the Allies.
From this distance it’s clear they all endured, and persevered, under the most trying of circumstances imaginable, regardless of which uniform they wore.