To feel the history of the “Greatest Generation,” I turn to Ernie Pyle, as I have this week. Looking over a calendar a few days ago, I realized that this column was to fall just shy of the 75th anniversary of D-Day, and I recalled that Pyle wrote a series of three columns describing the carnage he found on the beaches of Normandy just after the Allied invasion of Europe.
His words remain frightful and dreary, as all good stories of real war are.
But, they are optimistic, too.
I know a few men and women who can reach back to recall June 6, 1944, and I wonder if they are more, or less, uneasy with what they see in the world today when comparing it to the one they saw at barely 20 years old.
By the time American troops faced the murderous German defenses of France at Omaha and Utah Beaches, two great invasions of Nazi strangleholds — in North Africa and Italy — had already succeeded, but at a great cost. There was a reason to be upbeat, even before D-Day, that things were not going to end well for Hitler and his forces.
The columns Pyle dispatched from Normandy came within a week and a half of the day the first wave of Allied troops hit those and three other beaches. His stories are mostly about the costs of war, not just in men and materiel, but in the futures of those who did the fighting: the lives they wouldn’t have if they died, and the altered existences they were to live if they survived.
In the third column — called “A Long Thin Line of Personal Anguish” — he wrote about seeing a solder lying on the beach that he immediately assumed was dead, but was, instead, asleep, so tired that he slept where he had dropped.
In his hand, the GI held a stone from the beach, as if he had his own part of the place to take with him. Pyle also wrote of picking up a Bible he had found as he wandered, then placing it carefully back in the sand a hundred yards later, not knowing why he’d taken it in the first place. He wrote of the letters he saw, the sewing kits, the cigarettes, the bloody boots…
By living with the men who fought the war, Pyle was sensitive to who they were and what they experienced. He said war was mostly a dirty, often boring, and always a terrible business. That is the kind of thing that we need to remember this week — still in the shadow of Memorial Day — that often, sacrifice is driven by no more than a sense of obligation, a determination to pay forward freedom, not necessarily hand-off comfort or success or affluence.
My generation, and the one after it, has not gone without some disaster and discomfort and gloom. We are told that we, and our children and grandchildren, are living in an age of anxiety and uncertainty, that there seems to be a less clear line between good and evil, that we expect much and appreciate little.
I know we haven’t had nearly as much asked of us as those who fought against the Dust Bowl’s winds, the Great Depression’s hunger and World War II’s despotism. And so, if by reading about, and thinking of, and appreciating the anniversary of D-Day this Thursday is all we can do, we should do it, whether we like “history” or not.
In the first of that series from Normandy, Pyle wrote, “As one officer said, the only way to take a beach is to face it and keep going. It is costly at first, but it’s the only way. If the men are pinned down on the beach, dug in and out of action, they might as well not be there at all. They hold up the waves behind them, and nothing is being gained.”
“Our men were pinned down for a while,” the officer added, “but finally they stood up and went through, and so we took that beach and accomplished our landing. We did it with every advantage on the enemy’s side and every disadvantage on ours. In the light of a couple of days of retrospection, we sit and talk and call it a miracle that our men ever got on at all or were able to stay on.”
What those men did at Normandy was a miracle, and I see no reason why we can’t make another happen as we face our own messes now. We have to move; have to get off the beaches.
At the very least, we should appreciate a miracle when we see one.