D-Day & the Triumph of Human Being
Soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force. You are about to embark upon the great crusade toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you…
…I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less full Victory. Good luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.
General Dwight Eisenhower, June 6th, 1944
On June 2nd, 1944, General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe, established his forward headquarters at Southwick House, in Hampshire, England. The 19th century Georgian home was chosen partly for its proximity to Portsmouth Harbor and its surroundings, primary embarkation points for Operation Overlord, the combined naval, air, and land assault against Nazi-occupied France. Launched 75 years ago today, and taking place some one thousand seven hundred and forty-one days after the commencement of WWII, D-Day was in many ways the first day of the end of the war in Europe.
Of course, the fighting would continue for nearly another year. And few outcomes in war are ever preordained. In an excellent essay at The Times, historian Antony Beevor reminds us of history’s contingencies. He writes, “Today, with the benefit of hindsight, the victory of D-Day appears inevitable because of allied air and naval superiority.” At the time however, “the dividing line between triumph and utter disaster was too close to call.” In between moving to Southwick and launching the invasion, Eisenhower was faced with the crucial decision of whether to accept the meteorologists’ prediction that June 6th would offer the break in the tempestuous weather wracking the Channel. Had Eisenhower delayed, the necessary tide and lunar conditions would not realign for another two weeks. A fortnight later, Beevor tells us, “the invasion fleet would have would have encountered the worst storm in the Channel in 40 years.” Human action is always lived on a knife’s edge.
Eisenhower, thank God, did not delay. As he tells it, after the briefing he asked for the views of the combined chiefs of staff. Eventually, he rose from the table and said simply, “Okay, let’s go.” The room, he says, “emptied in two seconds” as his men moved to make ready.
That decision, for Eisenhower, was the easy part. The decision made, his personal torment really began. “That’s the most terrible time for the senior commander,” Eisenhower insisted. Once the plan is in action, he lamented, “there’s very little more that any commander above division command can do.” For Ike, the agony was intensified by the fact that he had been briefed by his strategists to expect severe casualties, including predicted losses among the paratroopers as high as 75%. To ease the waiting, the general spent some of the rest of the day visiting the men who would fight the battle ahead, including going to the airfield from which the American airborne—facing their heavy toll—were readying to take flight. It was, Eisenhower reflected, a “very fine experience.” He elaborated:
They were getting ready and all camouflaged and their faces blackened and all this. And there they saw me and of course they recognized me and they said, “Ah, quit worrying General we’ll take care of this thing for you.” And that kind of thing was a good feeling. As they started off, I watched them out of sight.
The supreme commander was obviously deeply moved by his experience. In his first report to Chief of Staff General George Marshall, Ike wrote of the men that “the enthusiasm, toughness and obvious fitness of every single man were high and the light of battle was in their eyes.”
The amphibious assault on the Normandy coast remains the largest sea-to-land attack in history comprising nearly 7,000 ships, including 4,000 landing craft 200 warships in the naval bombardment Boats But it involved much more than even this. The allies launched over 11,000 attack and support aircraft, including fighters, bombers, transports, and gliders. All told, the allies landed 156,000 troops in France, including more than 15,000 paratroopers. Allied losses for the day would total about 4,414 souls. German deaths were potentially twice as high.
The landings in Normandy represented a moment of great emotion. For the British, after the long years of defeat and struggle, they were finally returning in strength to the Continent. The whole idea of liberating Europe from Nazi oppression naturally produced strong feelings everywhere — among those who took part, among those at home, and of course among the people of the occupied countries longing for freedom.
For most Americans, D-Day rightly holds a place of high national honor. It fortifies our sense of who we are—and who we aspire to be—when those better angels of our nature hold sway. D-Day, and the larger conflict in which it was constituent, offered a rare moment when the line separating good from evil shone unusually distinct, when a clear and righteous duty bade us answer its call, when we joined a necessary fight we did not seek, and—when the smoke had cleared—in which we discovered we had measured up, were not found wanting, and, with our comrades in arms, stood triumphant on the field.
Today should be a reminder, especially, perhaps, to Christians, that sometimes fights need to be fought. We worship a God who mandated governments to use the sword to deploy violent action, in the last resort and in measures sufficient to win the fight, when nothing but proportionate and discriminate force will protect the innocent, take back what has been unjustly taken, or punish sufficiently grave evil.
The fight found us. The just warrior does not prefer violence to non-violence. The just warrior merely recognizes that there are times when violence is already being committed by men of evil intention and that it will not cease until men of better intention push back. Sometimes the only question in play is whether violence will continue to be committed only against the innocent, or whether counterforce will be deployed in their defense. WWII reminds us that those well-intentioned but desperately-wrong souls who call for pacifist responses to grievous moral evils are not really, in practice, committed to non-violence at all. They are committed merely to the principle that violence will only ever be waged against the innocent—never to rescue them.
It is not enough to say, as some Christians do, that while the government wields the sword, those who profess Christ are bound to a different path. Christians, they insist, are to present another option—an alternative community—to chasten the world. When one watches the footage of those boys wading to the beaches on Utah, Omaha, Juno, Sword, and Gold, through a meat-grinder of machine gun fire and artillery blasts, one should shudder to imagine that Christians are called to leave them to it on their own. The foolish aspiration of being a nonviolent, countercultural would fail in a moment in a world in which all good people were pacifists. If God thought that the nonviolent community was truly viable, then presumably he would have ordained it rather than a government of the sword. That he did in fact ordain the sword means he thought it was needed. If so, then Christians who refuse to fight even just war refuse in principle what they depend upon in practice. They survive only because others do their dirty work. To allow others to stain their souls while we pursue the purity of our own is a gross abdication of neighbor love.
It seems self-evident that much that is good in the world will be in peril should good men and women ever abandon the zeal to seek justice, even as they love mercy. It is a difficult balance to strike, and proves true the suspicion that only just warriors will consistently fight just wars. The inherent meaning in the image of the leaders of the United Kingdom, the United States, and France standing together with the leader of Germany, as allies, to memorialize a day in which, just two generations earlier, they were at each other’s throats must not be lost on us. It reminds us that just wars are fought first for the sake of justice and rescue but, ultimately, for the sake of reconciliation. It reminds us that just warriors are peacemakers. Those boys coming ashore in waves upon the Norman beach were taking the first steps in welcoming Germany back into the community of nations. D-Day was a step in the process of forgiveness.
I end by recalling the words Ike intoned when he rose from that staff table having made the decision to launch the invasion: “Okay, let’s go” he said. I am unable to resist calling to mind the last words of Todd Beamer, a passenger on the highjacked Flight 93 on September 11th, 2001. Just before Beamer and his fellow passengers attacked the terrorists in a bid to retake the aircraft, he was heard to say, “Okay, let’s roll.” In a similar locution, Ike and Beamer each capture, at the advent of their separate fights, something kinetic and forward leaning in the human spirit, even in the face of the terrible.
D-Day reminds us that we lose that spirit at our peril.
Marc LiVecche is the editor at large for Providence, and the McDonald Visiting Scholar at the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life at the University of Oxford.
Photo Credit: A landing craft from the U.S. Coast Guard-manned USS Samuel Chase disembarks troops of Company E, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division wading onto the Fox Green section of Omaha Beach on the morning of June 6, 1944. American soldiers encountered the newly formed German 352nd Division when landing. During the initial landing two-thirds of Company E became casualties. By: Robert F. Sargent via National Archives and Records Administration.