Perhaps the most moving genre of books I read growing up were what I will call anti-war war pieces. In this genre I include works set within a war that undermine the very idea of war; portray the helplessness individuals feel when swept up in grand conflict; and illustrate the senselessness, brutality and strangeness of violence on such a scale. Perhaps the greatest war stories are, at their core, also a nod to the bizarre, inhuman rules that govern these times in human history. To name perhaps the three most influential three of these for me (in descending order of impact on your then young & impressionable correspondent, with the first two being in the top 5 all time greatest hits: Catch-22, The Iliad and All Quiet On The Western Front. (I urge any and all of you to read Simon Weil’s masterful essay entitled “The Iliad or The Poem of Force” for what I am getting at with what conflict and violence do to an individual as both the enactor and victim of violence).
So while I know and accept conflict as a part of human nature and machtpolitik, I am naturally skeptical of its use anywhere when any viable alternatives are apparent. Yet as I moved through the overgrown bunkers and rusted German batteries at Longues Sur Mer, visited the Musée du Débarquement and remnants of the artificial harbors along the shore and, finally, the American cemetery and memorial at Omaha Beach, all that intellectual noise about the nature of conflict just turned off. It is hard to describe the sensation of standing under the mosaic of the chapel ceiling amidst the white crosses; hearing the stories of just a few of the men buried there; and knowing you stand in a field of 10,000 crosses and stars (perhaps crescents too?) representing a population with an average age of, perhaps, 24. I will not try to describe this here, only suggest, dear readers, that you make a stop, however brief, when you are able.
World War 2 rhetoric had been used to justify conflicts since the war itself, often with unfortunate and unintended consequences (I look forward to spending a week in Vietnam in August). Obama even invoked the memory of our D-Day soldiers in his recent DNC speech. Shortly after Normandy, I had the chance to spend over four hours at the Musée de l'Armée while in Paris (Where they have an example of just about every instrument ever invented to inflict bodily harm on someone else since the Bronze Age). There, the most powerful lesson I took away from my visit to their second world war exhibit was that it was not America’s war to win; it took all of us. It was the French resistance, The British fighting nearly alone for 2 years in the west, it was the Russians who in their armed services suffered over 60 casualties for every one American GI casualty who all contributed to the allied victory. We have so much to be proud of as a nation, perhaps chiefly in our commitment to our allies and our collaborative efforts to make this world a better place.