The Fading Chords of Memory of D-Day

At each year’s commemorations of D-Day, there will be a dwindling number of survivors like 95-year-old Harry Read and 94-year-old John Hutton, former British paratroopers who jumped with the British Parachute Regiment team on Wednesday to land in Sannerville, France, as they had 75 years ago.

A battle so momentous for the course of history, so entwined with the identities of the nations involved and so enormous in human tragedy is destined to be forever reinterpreted and reimagined, long after the witnesses are gone.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower knew that when he proclaimed a “great crusade” to liberate Europe. With victory over Nazi Germany, D-Day steadily morphed — at least for those who took part — from a military designation into a symbol of the triumph of good over evil, a standard against which to judge patriotism, duty and war. Its participants became the greatest generation, ready to sacrifice their lives to restore moral order and freedom to the Old World.

This narrative of D-Day has become all the more appealing at a time when inter-European and trans-Atlantic unity are being sorely tested, when wars seem militarily shapeless and morally murky, and when politics are steeped in division and rancor, and it was fully on display in this year’s 75th anniversary events.

President Trump drew on one of the founding documents of the American narrative when, at anniversary celebrations in Portsmouth, England, he read from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s celebrated D-Day prayer for soldiers who “this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.”

Collective memories, however, tend to take different forms in different nations, and while the virtues of unity and sacrifice are broadly shared, F.D.R.’s invocation of young American men off to save the world is not. Mr. Trump’s visit to Britain has also been a display of deep tensions in the “special relationship” that D-Day helped shape, and of broad rifts in the European unity ushered in by World War II. France has its own view of D-Day, in which gratitude to the saviors is tempered by efforts to elevate the role played by the French Resistance. Germans have gradually come around to a view of D-Day as the opening of a process by which Germany could be rehabilitated and reunited. Russians, for their part, have always viewed the Western Front as far less important in the victory over Germany than their Eastern Front.

None of that, however, detracts from the extraordinary courage and suffering of the men — boys, really — who on that fateful day waded through surf red with blood and sand littered with “the awful waste and destruction of war,” as the great reporter Ernie Pyle described it. It was good that they were still there this year to tell it how it was, and it was appropriate that it fell to a fellow veteran to thank them.

That veteran was a woman who had served in the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service as honorary Second Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor. She attended the 60th anniversary commemorations 15 years ago, and many at the time thought it would be her last such ceremony.

“But the wartime generation — my generation — is resilient, and I am delighted to be with you in Portsmouth today,” she said on Wednesday, now as Queen Elizabeth II. “It is with humility and pleasure, on behalf of the entire country — indeed the whole free world — that I say to you all, thank you.”

More on the D-Day anniversary.
Girl AAT

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