My wife, Linda, and I spent four days in Normandy in July, before embarking on a cruise to the Baltic countries. We have been to France many times, and to many parts of France (Paris, Provence, Dordogne, l’Ardennes), but never had visited the war zone in Normandy. We had no idea how profoundly affecting our explorations in Normandy would turn out.
 
Le Memorial in Caen
 
The magnificent war museum in Caen (capital of Basse-Normandie), opened in 1988 and called simply Le Mémorial, is a destination unto itself. It offers a sweep of history from the end of World War I through the premonitions of the 20’s and the upsurge of the Nazis in the 30’s, then moves to the onset of World War II in 1939 through the overwhelming D-Day invasion and the playout of the war. The exhibits are detailed, engrossing, beautifully graphic , well-translated and offered in multi-lingual audio. You stroll down a descending spiral (as in the Guggenheim), with exhibits on the outside and real tanks, rocket launchers, and other weapons of war in the core.

We rapidly were immersed in the detailed but lucid explanations of the political maneuvering in the 30’s (such as the Russo-German nonaggression pact), the Polish corridor, the land swaps as eastern-central Europe was played like a chess game, the horrors of the early German exterminations, and Vichy France. We were reminded of the cravenness of Petain and the Vichy government in sending perhaps 2 million Frenchmen to work in Germany for the Reich, the valor and futility of the French resistance, and the clarion call of DeGaulle to rally for la France. We saw the vast scope of destruction throughout Europe and especially on the Soviet front. We saw poignant contemporary videos of elderly war survivors recounting the extermination atrocities they had witnessed as teenagers. And we were reminded (did we ever really know this?) of how U.S. and British forces constructed an artificial harbor (Port Winston) as large as Boston harbor in just several days right after the D-Day invasion. Extraordinary. Certainly it was the eighth wonder of the world. In a few days!

We knew much of this history, but we didn’t really know it even though we had studied it. I was almost overcome by a 20-or-so-minute movie from contemporary film clips that juxtaposed the Allied preparations for the D-Day landing with the German defensive preparations in Normandy. The final scene showing the German view of a horizon completely filled with the ships of the Allied invasion was overpowering. We had had no real concept before this of the truly immense scope of the war effort. This made it real. We spent over half a day at le Mémorial and would have stayed longer but for fatigue.

Omaha Beach and the U.S. Cemetery

Omaha Beach, where almost 10,000 American soldiers died, looks like an ordinary beach, with somewhat coarse sand. You can park your car in an adjacent grassy area, like certain New England beaches. But there are large concrete blocks remaining in the sand from the invasion. And on the hill is the American cemetery, with long rows of crosses with an occasional Star of David. It is peaceful, and affecting. The memorial building there is beautiful, with truly well-constructed exhibits. There are movies that include vignettes of the lives and exploits of a number of the soldiers who died there. We heard Eisenhower relate his concerns about the invasion itself and how he ultimately decided to move ahead on D-Day. Again, the sense of immense scale of what happened, and how our country (and Allies) organized and carried out this almost superhuman, intense, and critical war effort, were both humbling and exhilarating.
 
Some After-Thoughts on Normandy on 9-11-11
 
Normandy holds the remains and still-living history of the greatest invasion in the history of the world. Our experience (at the Memorial, Omaha Beach, the constructed harbor at Arromanches, and other sites nearby) helped us come to grips with the true immensity of the war effort and the labor and massive construction that was involved, as well as the scope of death and destruction the war produced.

We understand more clearly than we ever did how vital it was for our country to fight that war and to win. We were truly fighting an evil, a massive evil — a society exterminating other people purposefully and in huge numbers, thousands and tens of thousands daily. The mind boggles.

We have a renewed perspective on the vitality of our country. During World War II, our whole society worked together for years in a truly immersive war effort. We were smart, productive, determined and brave. There was nothing we could not do or did not do. We were better than anyone else. What prevents us from being that and doing that again?

The Normandy perspective helps me as we confront the current political gridlock and depressive feeling that we are failing as a society, that we can’t solve our problems and can’t even find common ground politically to start on solutions to critical society problems, whether economic, scientific, or political.

Our current enemies are, ultimately, small and weak. They derive from failed or failing societies, replete with poverty and extreme inequality both political and economic, with its resulting political and religious extremism. Before we faced truly evil modern and heavily armed societies bent on destroying us. We defeated the latter. We should have many ways of defusing or defeating the former.

Normandy reassures me that our country organized itself smartly and persevered to meet and overcome the enormous external military challenge of the Nazis 70 years ago. Now our problems are largely economic and political and of our own doing, supplemented by the challenges of global political instability, economic inequality, and terrorist groups. Nothing prevents us from working together (to be smarter, more productive, more determined and braver as we were) to better ourselves and confront the unstable world environment — except us. This should truly be easy.

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