Only three members of my family have been to Europe. My uncle (mom’s brother) served in the Air Force and did a short tour in Germany and Spain. My father too was in the Air Force where he did his tour in England. And then there was my grandfather – my mother’s dad. He saw France, Belgium, Germany, and England as a member of the Army. But his tour, unlike those of my uncle and father, was a bit more chaotic. While their tours began in the two decades following his time in Europe, his began 76 years ago during the invasion of Normandy.
Every year on June 6 I have tried to do something to honor what my paternal grandfather did during the waning months of the European campaign of WWII. He was there that fateful day when the Allies established a foothold from which the liberation of Europe from Germany would begin. Shortly after, he was sent to Belgium where he was dispatched to travel with his company as they marched south to help close further escape routes for the German army and shut down much needed supply lines from the North. His letters during those darker days of our civilization’s history are short, to the point, and designed to send the simple message that he was alive and healthy. It would be after the surrender and his relocation to Paris that his letters changed tone, and in one he openly described the horrific visions that he saw briefly in Normandy and the hellscape he lived in during what we would call the Battle of the Bulge. One sentence has haunted me ever since my mother gave me the letters to keep:
“They were talking to me and then they were dead right beside me.”
I note all of this because this year, as June 6 came and went, the anniversary barely registered in the national conscience – and for good reason. In the wake of all that has happened since February, all those moments of our patriotic past now seem fraught with questionable intentions of focusing on remembering them rather than learning from them. During the early weeks of the pandemic, we heard reference after reference of the Spanish Flu epidemic. And while behind the scenes experts have studied and evaluated different tactics taken by our ancestors to fight that pandemic, the national narrative has only used the it as an adjective at times, and at others as a moniker of hyperbole for reference to how bad things may or may not be at present. Very rarely have I seen any news coverage about what we as the public can take away from that pandemic outside of washing our hands and wearing a mask.
So, what is the value of June 6, 1944? This year, on a personal level, I have found that outside of nostalgic references like the ones above, the real value of that day was lost the moment we brought our boys home. We, like every generation before us, have forgotten the fundamental questions that should always be asked – why did we commit to that moment at that very moment? – and – has anything changed? When we answer those questions, and then take action to remedy any lesson lost to inaction, then those moments in the past become valid and carry more important weight than simply reading a pile of 70+ year-old letters and thinking, “yeah, that happened and I bet it sucked.”
I say all of this to pose what I think is a valid question that demands an immediate and real response from our leaders as we watch and participate in the current protests across the country:
Why did my grandfather have to lay in a ditch and watch so many innocent boys die literally right beside him if nothing was going to change for more than 70 fucking years?