Thursday, June 6, 2024

D Day + 80


Today is the 80th anniversary of World War II's D-Day, the long-delayed, much anticipated, cross-channel, Allied invasion of German-occupied Europe. The amphibious landing of American, British, Canadian, and other forces in Normandy that day was a logistical accomplishment of monumental proportions, with military and political consequences of comparably monumental significance. 

So today U.S. President Joe Biden, Britain's King Charles III and Queen Camilla, French President Emmanuel Macron, and other international leaders are joining many others in Normandy to commemorate what wartime President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his famous D-Day Prayer, called "a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity." Fittingly, in addition to the  secular ceremonies, the Catholic Diocese of Bayeux-Lisieux is celebrating several D-Day Anniversary Masses on the Normandy beaches themselves and at Bayeux Cathedral. (The cathedral has also hosted a D-Day-eve ecumenical service, attended by Britain's Princess Royal.)

These anniversary celebrations are rendered somewhat bittersweet by the realization that the "Greatest Generation," that fought and won that war, has largely passed from the scene. My own father, who landed in France on D+2 (June 8, 1944) and who left me a map (photo) of his service in Europe between then and V-E Day (May 8, 1945), died in 1999, just a few months shy of what would have been his 80th birthday. All my uncles who had fought in that war and almost everyone else I grew up knowing from that generation has gone. We inhabit a world bereft of heroes. 

Tellingly, the U.S. Congress has been emptied of World War II veterans for a decade now. There was a time when Congress was full of them. The House reached its peak of  WWII veterans in 1969, when there were 327 of them in the House. The Senate's veterans membership peaked at 81 in 1975. (Also six of the eight presidents who served from 1973 to 1993 - Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Bush - were WWII veterans.) It was no accident that the most productive Congresses in modern U.S. history were when the "Greatest Generation" dominated. The power of that shared wartime experience united politicians of widely different backgrounds and beliefs, and their experience wining that war had taught them both what governmental power could accomplish and the importance of American engagement with the wider world. The loss of that shared worldview, of that generation's patriotism, and of their willingness to work together despite different backgrounds and beliefs has greatly diminished not just Congress but America.

Not so long ago, this anniversary also served as a celebration of what the Second World War accomplished and the new - largely democratic and increasingly prosperous - political and social order established in the Western part of the post-war world. But that world and that post-war political and social order have been shattered in part by globalization and the perhaps inevitable changes in the worldwide balance of power and in part by the very non-inevitable U.S Trump-MAGA withdrawal from world leadership. May today be a wholesome reminder of the importance of American leadership in the world and a warning of what happened a century ago when American had withdrawn from and shunned such leadership.

Photo: Map drawn by my father to commemorate his service in Europe, from his landing two days after D-Day until V-E Day, May 8, 1845.

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