Knee-Deep in the Blood-Soaked Battlefields of Europe

July 10, 2011 6:11 pm 1 comment

US Navy Landing Craft Approaches Omaha Beach.

The two sides of war – useless carnage on the one hand, necessary bravery and heroism on the other – were always in evidence as I toured with my wife and older children the WWI and WWII battlefields of Belgium and France.

In Flanders and at the Somme, where millions of soldiers lost their lives in the First World War to capture a few yards that were quickly recaptured by the enemy, the feel of death lingered nearly a century after the fearsome clashes. Everywhere around the towns of Albert at the Somme, and Ypres in Flanders, there are graves. Endless mounds of graves. So many that it would take weeks to visit them all. Military cemeteries dot the landscape with the ubiquitousness of Starbucks and Macdonald’s. The cemeteries each have hundreds and often thousands of headstones. Never in my life have I been surrounded by so much death. A single British memorial at Thiepval lists the names of seventy-two thousand soldiers whose bodies were never recovered.

The pock-marked, cratered battlefields where so many soldiers died in vain are likewise everywhere along the truly massive Western front, which extended from Switzerland to the North Sea. Nearly a hundred years later, the cemeteries are still richly maintained by the British, Canadian, Irish, and South African governments. The famous poppies which came to define the First World War still grow between the graves and on the side of the road in a manner reminiscent of John’ McCrae’s unforgettable poem, Flanders Fields, and the overwhelming emotion felt by the visitor a century later as he views this most quintessential of European wars is the utter stupidity, futility, and uselessness of war. Painful as it is to say, these millions of men, including the 400,000 British casualties of the Somme offensive which yielded but a few hundred yards and which the Germans retook just a few months later, died for nothing.

Not that the military cemeteries would ever admit as much. In nearly all the first words you encounter, etched in bright stone, is ‘They Fought for Freedom,’ or some such banner. But the truth is they fought for the limitless egos of European imperialists and the megalomaniacal stupidity of clueless generals, all of whom –  Wilhelm II, Nicholas II, Kitchener, Haig, Bethman, and the Ottomans – have been utterly discredited by history.

By the time you drive southwest, however, for just three hours, the beaches of Normandy yield a uniquely American face of war. Just as I can scarcely describe the feelings of horror I experienced amid the tombstones of poppy country at the Somme, I struggle equally to convey the inspiration of living out my lifelong dream of standing on the invasion beaches of D-Day. From the British and Canadian beaches of Sword, Juno, and Gold and especially to the American beaches of Omaha and Utah, there is heroism glimmering from every particle of sand and bravery shimmering from the crest of every wave. Here was war with a noble, human objective. Not to win glory but to defeat evil. Not to expand empire but to crush tyranny. Not to subdue a foreign nation but to stop the genocide of a defenceless people.

Omaha Beach should be the American Mecca, a place of required pilgrimage for every US citizen at least once in their lifetime. As I stood on the vast expanse of Omaha beach I closed my eyes and tried to see the nearly three thousand Americans who died storming a heavily fortified beach, dodging machine gun nests, evading mortar fire, jumping from tanks hit by German 88mm cannons, until they could fight no more, falling amid the blithering German crossfire in defense of people they had never met. Walking among the silence and perfect rows of Crosses and Magen Davids of the ten thousand Americans interred at the Omaha Beach cemetery overlooking the invasion site, you can still feel the tremor of millions of American soldiers hurling themselves against Hitler’s Atlantic wall to  liberate a continent that Americans had themselves abandoned a century-and-a-half earlier because of its limits on human freedom. To witness the scale of the effort, like the remnants of the mammoth ‘Mulberry’ artificial harbour at Arromanches, built in the absence of a captured port to feed and supply the immense army, is to be rendered small as you stand amid the enormity of those justly labelled ‘The Greatest Generation.’

Americans do not fight wars for medals or conquest. They fight wars for liberty and freedom. Colin Powell expressed it best: “Over the years the United States has sent many of its fine young men and women into great peril to fight for freedom beyond our border. The only amount of land we have ever asked for in return is enough to bury those that did not return.”

Those noble ideals should guide the current debate as to whether America should be participating with the French and English in the fight against Gaddafi, as more Republicans join the criticism of President Obama for bombing Libya without Congressional approval.

Like any nation, there are limits to our manpower and resources. America should not have to be the world’s policeman, a goal that was originally set for a now toothless and corrupt United Nations. But as someone who has criticized President Obama in the past for showing weakness toward Iran in 2009 and doing next-to-nothing about Syria in 2011, I strongly applaud his efforts to bomb the hell out of Gaddafi’s thugs who are slaughtering their own people. I am amazed that any Republican would feel differently.

The British humiliated themselves by freeing the Lockerbie bomber over what seemed to be capitulation for an oil deal favoring BP. Likewise, the French condemned America for removing Saddam Hussein, a man who gassed thousands of children. But both nations have found a measure of redemption in their bold campaign to punish Gaddafi for brutalizing innocent people. And the thought that the United States should not, at the very least, participate with drones and the supply of logistics and ordinance, even as British and French pilots carry the heaviest load, to pummel a bloodthirsty tyrant runs contrary to the spirit of every American value.

It was we Americans who inspired our European brethren to put aside war as an instrument of glory and employ it solely as an apparatus to protect life and dignity. It was we who saved Britain from invasion and France from occupation. And now that they too are fighting to protect complete strangers, we dare not retreat from values that were midwifed by generations of brave Americans.

Shmuley Boteach, the best-selling author and broadcaster whom Newsweek calls ‘the most famous Rabbi in America,’ will shortly publish ‘Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself.’ (Wiley) Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

1 Comment

  • Robert Smith

    Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada declared war on Germany within hours or days of the invasion of Poland in 1939.
    America only got involved because Germany declared war on America in 1941.
    The RAF saved Britain from invasion, not the USA.
    The Russians bore the brunt of the fighting against Germany.
    All in all a smug and irritating article.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Music US & Canada Lady Gaga Accepts ADL Award: ‘Your Philosophies Are So in Line With Ours’ (VIDEO)

    Lady Gaga Accepts ADL Award: ‘Your Philosophies Are So in Line With Ours’ (VIDEO)

    Pop superstar Lady Gaga on Thursday accepted an award from Jewish human rights group the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) on behalf of her Born This Way Foundation, which strives to combat bullying among young people. “Your philosophies are so in line with ours,” she said of the ADL upon accepting the Making a Difference Award in a videotaped message, which was shown at a ceremony in New York City. “We want to help young people know that their feelings and who they are on [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Personalities At 80, Singer-Songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewish Roots ‘Very Much Intact’

    At 80, Singer-Songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewish Roots ‘Very Much Intact’

    JNS.org – Eighty years young, Leonard Cohen fits many descriptions—singer, songwriter, poet, novelist, monk. From his Jewish upbringing in Canada to the present day, Cohen has always explored his spiritual side. This month, the singer-songwriter released the CD (May 12) and iTunes (on May 8 of this year) formats of his latest album, Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour, which features live recordings from his world tours in 2012 and 2013. Last year, Cohen’s Popular Problems was voted by Rolling Stone [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports FIFA Head Says Israel Should Not be Booted From World Soccer Association

    FIFA Head Says Israel Should Not be Booted From World Soccer Association

    JNS.org – Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) head Sepp Blatter said during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that contrary to Palestinian complaints, Israel has not violated any FIFA statutes and should not be suspended from international soccer’s governing body. “We should not come to one federation saying we will exclude them,” said Blatter, the Jerusalem Post reported. “If the national association is fulfilling its obligations then there is no need to intervene,” he said. “I’m on a [...]

    Read more →
  • Featured Middle East Sports Jewish Rights Group Slams Palestinian Attempts to Suspend Israel From FIFA

    Jewish Rights Group Slams Palestinian Attempts to Suspend Israel From FIFA

    Jewish human rights group the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) said on Tuesday it was “appalled” by a Palestinian Football Association initiative to suspend Israel from FIFA, calling it another “front waged in the context of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign.” “We are appalled at the temerity of the Palestinan Football Association (PFA) demand that FIFA suspend Israel at your forthcoming Congress in Zurich,” wrote the group’s international relations director, Dr. Shimon Samuels, in a letter to FIFA President Joseph [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada Star of Auschwitz Thriller Says ‘God Was Holding the Hand of Every Jew in the Gas Chamber’ (VIDEO)

    Star of Auschwitz Thriller Says ‘God Was Holding the Hand of Every Jew in the Gas Chamber’ (VIDEO)

    The lead actor in Son of Saul, an Auschwitz thriller featured at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, told the UK’s The Guardian that he believes God was “holding the hand” of each Jew who died in the Nazi gas chambers during the Holocaust. “I do not for one nanosecond like to pretend that God is off the hook. He could and should have stopped it at a much earlier stage,” Géza Röhrig, 48, said. ”But I would not be able to get [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Backstreet Boys Singer Howie D Gushes Over Masada During Israel Trip

    Backstreet Boys Singer Howie D Gushes Over Masada During Israel Trip

    Backstreet Boys singer Howie Dorough took to Instagram on Tuesday to marvel about climbing the famed Masada fortress with his band during their visit to Israel, where they will perform this week for the first time. The group’s second day of sightseeing in the Jewish state included the Masada hike, and taking a mud bath at the Dead Sea. A picture from the band’s official Twitter page shows the five singers covered in mud. While relaxing in the Dead Sea, [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews US & Canada ‘Arms and the Dudes:’ New Book, Film Detail How Ex-Orthodox Yeshiva Guys Became Top Suppliers for Afghan Army

    ‘Arms and the Dudes:’ New Book, Film Detail How Ex-Orthodox Yeshiva Guys Became Top Suppliers for Afghan Army

    A new book and its upcoming film adaptation tell the true story of how three former yeshiva students who habitually smoked marijuana scored a $300 million contract from the U.S. government to supply weapons for the Afghan Army, the New York Daily News reported on Sunday. Arms and the Dudes details how the Miami Beach potheads became “the most unlikely gunrunners in history,” according to the book’s author, investigative reporter Guy Lawson. The tale begins with Efraim Diveroli, nephew of [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Theater Natalie Portman: Israel-Themed ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ Not Political

    Natalie Portman: Israel-Themed ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ Not Political

    JNS.org – Natalie Portman, who directs and stars in the new Hebrew-language film adaptation of author Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness, says that despite Oz’s record as a vocal left-wing critic of Israel, her film is not political. Like the book on which it is based, Portman’s film is about a young boy at the time of the founding of the state of Israel. “I think the movie is very much about this very particular, specific family story. Of [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.