My buddy and I walked the D-Day beaches of Normandy in the spring of 1984, 40 years after civilization came to grips with barbarism in a crusade whose outcome was far from certain. We identified the beaches not by their political boundaries but by their once-secret code names: Juno, Sword, Gold, Utah and Omaha. At the risk of sounding like the rube I was, I will tell you that it was my first trip overseas, and I was a year short of 30. My buddy was two years younger. It was his first trip abroad, too.
We went to Normandy not as tourists but as pilgrims intent on seeing with our own eyes the relics of another generation’s sacrifice. Baby boomers and sons of combat veterans, we had never heard a shot fired in anger, but we surely had been reared in the shadow of conflict. We heard no stories about the glory of war (this conspicuous silence persuaded us that there is none), but we absorbed lessons about duty and honor and the common good, and of this nation’s capacity for both greatness and goodness. Times and attitudes were different then.
Although neither of our fathers landed on D-Day (his dad served on a battleship in the South Pacific; mine, slightly too young for World War II, was one of the front-line cops during our “police action” against the Communists in Korea), the beaches, bluffs and hedgerows of Normandy symbolized, in our eyes, their courage and honor and eventual triumph in a perilous time. In their early 20’s, they had saved the country and the world, and then they shed their weapons and got married and bought homes and had children and lived lives far removed from the horrors of the foxhole and the foibles of international politics: the Cincinnatus Generation.
My buddy and I had divergent interests and outlooks, but we had in common a reverence for our soldier-fathers and for a generation of men and women that had known and survived economic calamity and a Homeric struggle against ferocious evil. Though born 11 years and four months after D-Day, I can recite from memory lines from Franklin Roosevelt’s speech to the nation on the evening of June 6, 1944: He offered a prayer for “our sons” who fought “not for conquest, but to end conquest … and to set free a suffering humanity.” I was given a tape of that speech when I was 10 years old. I have it still.
I have, too, a plastic bag filled with sand taken from Omaha Beach, the god-awful place where D-Day would have fallen apart but for the courage of America’s citizen soldiers. Above the beach, on a bluff from which the Germans fired at the American invaders with such murderous effect, rows of crosses and Stars of David silently speak of the cost of all that we take for granted-and, indeed, all that the world-weary among us mock.
The great achievement of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan is not so much its brilliant re-creation of the horrors and confusion of battle, but its tribute to the ordinary men who performed extraordinary deeds in the face of unknowable horror. It has been interpreted, understandably, as a reminder to the succeeding generation that nothing it does will approach what Maureen Dowd called the “nobility” of the men and women who had their hands on the torch that was passed from Dwight Eisenhower to John F. Kennedy in 1961.
Nobility, of course, doesn’t (or shouldn’t) require the peculiar sort of courage and selflessness that wartime demands. But Ms. Dowd and others are on to something: The lives of most boomers are shallow, self-indulgent and indeed insignificant compared to their parents. The problem, or tragedy, is that a fair portion of the boomers revel in their own triviality. One need only examine the Manhattan-based entertainment and media industry, run by and for boomers, to conclude that the children of D-Day have substituted irony for decency and cynicism for courage, allowing them to conclude that nothing really matters.
They-we-abhor anything that suggests seriousness of purpose. We are content to remain eternal sophomores: My kids call their friends’ parents by their first names. What boomer wishes to be addressed with a prefix? But on the History Channel the other night, journalist Sander Vanocur was interviewing two 70-something D-Day veterans. They replied to his questions by calling him “Mister Vanocur.” Imagine one of us on a nighttime talk show, calling a certain host “Mister Rose.”
In the years since our journey, my buddy and I talked often about what we saw in Normandy, and you can be sure he was amused some years later when I married the daughter of a soldier who, as circumstance would have it, landed on those very beaches on June 6, 1944.
He died, my buddy did, just over a year ago after a struggle with cancer that one could fairly describe as noble. He drew his last breath on a Friday night, a few minutes before midnight, so that his death certificate noted that he died on June 6.
Coincidence, no doubt.