A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece about the fading sentimental connection of today’s generations with World War II, the defining event of the 20th century. There is some oddity in living through the transition: in seeing the soldiers whom FDR called “our sons” become our grandfathers and great-grandfathers, and then the ghosts of history commemorated on tombstones.
One of the most important transitions is the fading of the grand narrative by which we defined and guided our nation for so many decades. The hindsight of history has its rewards. But it has its drawbacks as well, as immediacy and personal connection disappear behind us.
A whole civilizational mindset is being bred out of us with the passage of time: a visceral sense of meaning and purpose that once flooded us when we heard words like “Pearl Harbor” or “D-Day.” Even we who were born well after V-J Day in 1945 were participants in the nearly universal sense that World War II was the gravitational center of our time. If we didn’t have personal memories, we had vivid memories of the memories of others: pictures and sounds and stories burned on our minds and hearts.
That sense inevitably has much less reality for the more recent generations. There is some justice, too, in the observation that a lot has changed since the 1940s – even since the 1970s or 1980s – including the character and the certainties of the people. The rulebook of the “Greatest Generation” no longer presides over our public square, and with it has gone the framework for what was once America’s mighty vision of freedom.
Many younger people realize, with their elders, that in important ways we are rudderless today, struggling just to understand what freedom means. The touchstones of certainty are so far behind us now that fewer and fewer of us can even articulate what they were, back in those war years between 1939 and 1945. Certainly, fewer now realize that they were imperiled even then, and that we fought the great war precisely because they were imperiled, and because they were worth fighting to defend.
As we reach the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, we have much to relearn. Some would say we’re due a big dose of humility, and I suppose they’re right. But I’d like to suggest a slightly different perspective, as we commemorate an anniversary that still tugs on many of our aging hearts. It came to me as I was assembling the videos and transcripts for this post, and listening once again to Reagan’s seminal speech at Normandy 30 years ago today.
He spoke of a generation of men who faced the seemingly impossible task of scaling the sheer cliffs of Normandy in the teeth of machine-gun fire from the German defenders: who attacked the shore not knowing if they could get this job done or not, but who did, in the end, manage to do it. Here is Reagan’s narrative:
At dawn, on the morning of the 6th of June, 1944, 225 Rangers jumped off the British landing craft and ran to the bottom of these cliffs. Their mission was one of the most difficult and daring of the invasion: to climb these sheer and desolate cliffs and take out the enemy guns. The Allies had been told that some of the mightiest of these guns were here and they would be trained on the beaches to stop the Allied advance.
The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers — the edge of the cliffs shooting down at them with machineguns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After 2 days of fighting, only 90 could still bear arms.
Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there.
These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.
There is a real sense – in some ways an even more challenging sense – in which the living generations of today face the sheer, forbidding cliffs of a moral and cultural Pointe du Hoc. In its way, reclaiming the American heritage of freedom, of constitutionalism and limited government for a religious and moral people, is as tremendous and daunting a task as mounting the D-Day invasion.
It has been a long time since Americans faced a challenge whose outcome we knew would be life-altering for us, but whose success or failure we truly could not foresee. We have to go back to the middle years of the Cold War to recapture something of what it felt like for the citizen, and back to Korea and World War II to recover how it was for the soldier.
But America was born from the tenacity of generations of the “boys of Pointe du Hoc.” From the pilgrims on the leaky, lice-ridden Mayflower to the fight for beach-heads in the Pacific in 1944 and 1945, going in where there are no guarantees, yet everything we hold dear is on the line, is what we do.
Every few generations, Americans have embarked on an epic enterprise of breathtaking daring: the kind of enterprise a society of complacent busybodies, one that obsesses over “hate speech” and salt content, would call crazy or irresponsible. Many Americans today would like to see laws that prohibit precisely the daring of liberty that America has made her name and her fortune exercising. Such complacency is the sheerest of cliffs, and it has machine-guns all over it, manned by an army of desperate defenders terrified of the unknown. We may know the cliff has to be scaled, but that doesn’t mean we can see how to do it.
Reagan’s simple narrative is a good start, though. Throw up a rope ladder and start climbing. When one man falls, take his place, and keep going. When a rope is cut, throw up another and start again. Climb, shoot back, and hold our footing. Soon, one by one, we’ll pull ourselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top, begin to seize back our heritage and our future.
The boys of Pointe du Hoc didn’t know in advance that their fight would be won. Neither do we know today whether ours will be. We don’t know what will symbolize the “daggers” we hack with into the side of the cliff, or whether there will ever be ceremonies to commemorate the “D-Day” that is shaping up for our generations.
But we know whose shoulders we stand on. And we know, as those forebears did, that we are the ones here, facing the test, and there is no one else. On this 70th anniversary of the remarkable Allied feat of June 1944, we can profit from pondering the words of encouragement from two American presidents who, on this day 70 years ago, did not yet know how the battle would turn out. And with a third president, who did know, we can give thanks, and put words and shape to our vision, and commit ourselves, without faltering, to whatever it takes to scale the cliff now looming before us.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, U.S. Army, Supreme Allied Commander (later 34th president of the United States)
Address to the Allied invasion force on D-Day, 6 June 1944
Transcript (courtesy of U.S. Army)
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