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.