The two sides of war â€“ useless carnage on the one hand, necessary bravery and heroism on the other â€“ were ever evident in Belgium and France as my wife, our older children and I toured battlefields of two world wars.
Truth regardless of consequences In Flanders and at the Somme, where millions of soldiers lost their lives in World War I to capture a few yards that were quickly recaptured by the enemy, the feel of death lingers after nearly a century. Everywhere around the towns of Albert at the Somme, and Ypres in Flanders, there are endless mounds of graves. The cemeteries each have hundreds and often thousands of headstones. Never have I been surrounded by so much death. A single British memorial at Thiepval lists the names of 72,000 soldiers whose bodies were never recovered.
Pock-marked, cratered battlefields are to be found everywhere along the truly massive Western front of World War I, which extended from Switzerland to the North Sea. The British, Canadian, Irish, and South African governments richly maintain these cemeteries. The famous poppies which came to define the First World War still grow between the graves and on the sides of the road in a manner reminiscent of John McCrae’s unforgettable poem, “In Flanders Fields.” And the overwhelming emotion felt by the visitor nine decades later as he views this most quintessential of European conflicts is the utter stupidity, futility and uselessness of war. Painful as it is to say, millions of men â€“ including the 400,000 British casualties of the Somme offensive that yielded but a few hundred yards and which the Germans retook just a few months later – died for nothing.
The military cemeteries would never admit as much, of course. In nearly all of them, the first words you see, etched in bright stone, are “They Fought for Freedom,” or similar slogans. The truth, however, is that they fought for the limitless egos of European imperialists and the megalomaniacal stupidity of clueless generals, all of whom stand discredited by history.
Three hours to the southwest brings you to a far different place – the beaches of Normandy. As difficult as it is for me to describe the feelings of horror I experienced amid the tombstones of the Somme, so difficult it is for me to convey the inspiration of living out my lifelong dream of standing on the invasion beaches of D-Day. From the British and Canadian beaches of Sword, Juno, and Gold, and especially to the American beaches of Omaha and Utah, there is heroism glimmering from every particle of sand and bravery shimmering from the crest of every wave. Here was a war fought for a noble, human objective – not to win glory, but to defeat evil; to crush tyranny; to stop the eradication of a defenseless people.
Omaha Beach should be the American Mecca, a place of required pilgrimage for every U.S. citizen at least once in his or her lifetime. As I stood on the vast expanse of Omaha Beach, I closed my eyes and tried to see the nearly 3,000 Americans who died storming on shore, dodging machine gun nests, evading mortar fire, jumping from tanks hit by cannons, until they could fight no more, falling amid the withering German crossfire in defense of people they had never met. Walking among the silence and perfect rows of Crosses and Magen Davids of the 10,000 Americans interred at the cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, you can still feel the tremor of U.S. soldiers hurling themselves against Hitler’s Atlantic wall to liberate a continent far away from their own shores. To witness the scale of the effort is to be rendered small as you stand amid the enormity of those justly labeled “The Greatest Generation.”
Americans do not fight wars for medals or conquest. They fight wars for liberty and freedom. Colin Powell expressed it best: “Over the years, the United States has sent many of its fine young men and women into great peril to fight for freedom beyond our border. The only amount of land we have ever asked for in return is enough to bury those that did not return.”
Those noble ideals should guide the current debate as to whether America should be participating with the French and British in the fight against Muammar Kaddafi, as more Republicans join the criticism of President Obama for bombing Libya without congressional approval.
Like any nation, there are limits to our manpower and resources. America should not have to be the world’s policeman, a goal that was originally set for a now toothless and corrupt United Nations. As someone, however, who has criticized President Obama in the past for showing weakness toward Iran in 2009 and doing next to nothing about Syria in 2011, I strongly applaud his efforts to bomb the hell out of Kaddafi’s thugs, who are slaughtering their own people.
I am amazed that any Republican would feel differently.
The British humiliated themselves by freeing the Lockerbie bomber over what seemed to be capitulation for an oil deal favoring BP. Likewise, the French condemned America for removing Saddam Hussein, a man who gassed thousands of children. But both nations found a measure of redemption in their bold campaign to punish Kaddafi for brutalizing innocent people. The thought that the United States should not participate, at the very least, with drones and the supply of logistics and ordnance, even as British and French pilots carry the heaviest load, to pummel a bloodthirsty tyrant runs contrary to the spirit of every American value.
We Americans inspired our European brethren to put aside war as an instrument of glory and employ it solely as an apparatus to protect life and dignity. We saved Britain from invasion and freed France from occupation. And now that they too are fighting to protect complete strangers, we dare not retreat from values that were midwived by generations of brave Americans who truly did fight – including the tens of thousands who died – for freedom.