By Douglas Kennedy
Landscapes after battle are always an intriguing construct. Consider Omaha Beach on an impeccable early summer’s day in Normandy—the light pellucid, the sky a dazzling Yves Klein blue, the waters of La Manche becalmed, making it a beachscape of great visual sweep and subdued grandeur.

There’s no sense of the carnage once seen on its sands, as Allied forces—135,000 of them—landed on this corner of northern France on June 6, 1944, as part of one of the more epic events in military history: the D-Day landings that marked the beginning of the end of Nazi hegemony over Europe.

More than 4,000 Allied soldiers died on that first fateful day. And now, eighty years later, here were over 5,000 people—led by the president of the Republic, the president of the United States, and around two dozen other heads of state—crowded into a rather ingenious prefabricated amphitheater fronting the beach to commemorate the invasion that absolutely changed the trajectory of the Second World War.

And of the many profound moments that arouse during this deeply affecting in memoriam day,  the one that truly caused me to stifle a sob was watching the last remaining wizened American veterans of the Normandy landings being brought out onstage in wheelchairs. At which point the thought struck me: as no one can serve in the US military under the age of eighteen, the youngest of these survivors (not just of D-Day, but of life itself) had to be ninety-eight years old.

And perhaps part of the reason why I caught myself tearing up had to do with the fact that, at the time of the assault on Omaha Beach, my seventeen-year-old father (he falsified his papers when enlisting) was a United States Marine who, the following year, found himself on the Pacific Island of Okinawa. He arrived at the start of an eighty-two-day battle with the Japanese Imperial Army that left over 200,000 dead. For the rest of his life he suffered from survivor’s guilt and assorted post-traumatic stress disorders. Meanwhile, his own father was a little closer to the D-Day action, as he was a commodore in the US Navy commanding a supply boat in the North Atlantic. When they met after they were both demobilized, my dad tried to articulate his ongoing postwar anguish to his father. And what was my grandfather’s immediate reply? “Shut up … and get over it.” Then again, empathy back then was considered soft-centered and emasculating. Silent stoicism—especially among the military—was the only suitable modus operandi for a so-called real man.

Were he still with us, my father would today have been the same age as those aged D-Day veterans in their wheelchairs. Like my dad’s, their childhoods and adolescence had been shaped by the economic consequences of the Great Depression, then the toxic shadows of fascism enveloping Europe, followed by an imperial force proclaiming domination in the Far East and staging an audacious attack (Pearl Harbor) on American soil. And, as biology has this habit of calling time on us all, another thought struck me during the Omaha Beach commemorations: of all the many world leaders present for the commemoration, only eighty-one-year-old President Biden was alive on June 6, 1944, and he was just eighteen months old at the time.

More tellingly, those wizened survivors of D-Day were some of the last standing members of “The Greatest Generation.” It’s a tag given to American World War II veterans because, after all, they brought down the Nazi butchers and also held off the Japanese (until the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended that sector of the war with ferocious definitiveness). And for an American of my generation—a Baby Boomer born just ten years after the fall of Hitler—the war was not just the reverberating background soundtrack to my early years, but also to the emerging geopolitical (and mercantile) dominance of the United States. As such, the Normandy landings were spoken about by my parents and (latterly) by certain of my teachers with hushed reverence. Because D-Day was regarded as that moment of national heroic grandeur when we risked and sacrificed all to end the monstrosity of fascism.

And, in a culture where the Hollywood western speaks volumes about our myths and our frequently Manichean moral code, Normandy was also one of those shining instances where we were a proper force for democratic change; where, as in so many cowboy sagas, the good guys actually won.

We may universally mourn the tragedy that was the Vietnam War­—an event that fostered the divisions that are so vast in America today. Educated Americans may look upon the invasion of Iraq and our misadventures in Afghanistan as absolute fiascos. But Normandy remains not just a brilliantly coordinated military coup de theatre, but also the moment when the United States could rightfully call itself a beacon of light in a world made dark by totalitarian extremes.

No wonder that the images of D-Day—especially the astonishing “movement of landing” photos by the great Robert Capa—have become iconic (not to mention the stuff of film lore, from The Longest Day to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and even Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One). In American eyes, us Yanks had arrived in Europe to save the continent from its darkest impulses—and, with the subsequent postwar Marshall Plan, we even allowed the enemy to rebuild its western self into a model of social democracy. In fact, all of Western Europe benefited from postwar American largesse, strengthening our position as the global do-gooders—until we quickly got locked into a ferocious, nuclear-arms-fueled geopolitical chess game with our new bete noir: the hegemony-obsessed Soviet Union.

And this ever-expanding obsession with the Communist threat brought about the McCarthyite persecution of alleged “reds” on the home front, while thereafter landing us in the midst of a mutual annihilation scenario during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cold War domino theory—that if one regional country fell to Communism the rest would subsequently tumble—informed our terrible bellicose activities in Southeast Asia and the undermining of democratically elected socialist regimes in Chile, not to mention the destructive Reagan-era follies in Central America.

Now the specter of totalitarian darkness is an increasingly omnipresent one throughout Europe and elsewhere. Now a war in Ukraine serves as a reminder that Russian imperial ambitions have returned with a vengeance. And despite having been recently found guilty of thirty-four felonies—and facing many other federal and state charges of wrongdoing—Donald Trump is still favored to win the White House in November. A convicted bad guy, who was also found accountable for rape in a civil trial, and who essentially called for a coup d’etat after losing the 2020 election, this unapologetic dictator-in-waiting is still supported by around 40 percent of the American electorate.

As such, Trumps stands as a frightening authoritarian counterweight to all that Normandy represents.

Which brings me back to that poignant commemoration on Omaha Beach—and another moment when my eyes welled up, thanks to a performance of the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as beautifully sung by Les Enfant de la Maitrise de l’Opera-Comique. What a fitting way to contextualize the ongoing significance of D-Day: by having a young French chorus sing Beethoven’s proclamation of universal fraternity and freedom. The triumph over Teutonic despotism and genocide was being commemorated by the ultimate musical statement on humanity overcoming bellicosity and desperation, as composed by a son of Germany.

Perhaps there is another subtext lurking behind the Normandy landings: the fact that history is a cyclical conundrum, and one where the good guys don’t win every time. Which, seen in the light of our planet’s increasingly precipitous ecology and geopolitics—and an ever-worrying number of countries being controlled by those of a fascist bent—raises the following existential question:

Once you begin to understand history do you live in fear, or is there still the possibility of hope?