Thursday, August 9, 2012

Sacred ground

I am biking along Colleville Beach  -- it is a beautiful day and families are spread out for miles along the beach, playing in the water, picnicking, sitting in the sun, doing all the things that families do on a beautiful white sandy beach.

And inside I am screaming:

Don't they know this is sacred ground!?!

This part of France is better known to most Americans as part of Omaha Beach, where on June 6, 1944, the American Allies landed on D-Day on the coast of Normandy. The remnants of what was the largest armada ever assembled are on the bluffs above the beaches -- bomb craters, fortified gun positions, and rows and rows of white crosses (with an occasional Star of David) marking the graves of the some of the near half million American, British, Canadian, German, and other countries' casualties of the Battle of Normandy.

View from Pointe du Hoc, where rangers scaled 100 foot cliffs to reach Nazi guns
I am mesmerized by this battle -- the stunning losses on this beach, the confusion and chaos of this part of the landing gone terribly wrong.  The bombers that were supposed to take out the German guns dropped most of them harmlessly behind the lines because of a ground fog.  Men so seasick that when they landed, going forward into a hail of bullets seemed a better choice...  infantrymen trained to razor precision to work together separated from the rest of their troops, including their leaders... the loss of most of the radios (let alone those who were supposed to use them) so that the big guns 15 kilometers off shore that were supposed to take out the heavy artillery that rained down death on the beach could not do so for lack of coordinates, and could only watch from afar... the extraordinary courage of ordinary men - "if we're going to die, let's die up there!"  The smaller destroyers, guns blazing to try to eliminate some of the German gun positions, risking grounding or hitting a mine, attempting to do what was not in the plan to save the men on the beach...and the future of the free world.

What is behind my fascination with D-Day?  How does it reconcile with my faith?  Delegates at the 2010 General Assembly pointed out that some of us believe "force is sometimes necessary as a last resort".  Chamberlain tried appeasement in 1938 in an attempt to avoid war, sacrificing Czechoslovakia in the process.  Petain tried to keep France out of fighting -- and was complicit in sending 75,000 Jews and other "undesirables" to death. 

I reach my destination on the beach -- a restaurant where my small group joins M. Heintz, who was part of the Battle of Normandy as a French Resistance fighter.  Now 94, he leads us over the bluffs, walking briskly and purposefully to each spot, and tells its story.  At some point, I ask him the question I also asked M. Vico, the Resistance fighter we met with the day before.  

The Battle of Normandy included "carpet-bombing" vast swathes of the Norman countryside, leveling and killing everything.  Cities that had stood for centuries:  Caen, Rouen, were essentially leveled, killing more than 20,000 civilians.  I had assumed these were Nazi bombs -- they were Allied.

How did he, M. Heintz, feel about the decision to level his Normandy?

He pauses..  thinks for a few moments, and says "it had to be done.  Sometimes we must look to greater purposes."

Don't they know this is sacred ground?  Of course they do.  Many of the families I rode past lost members of their own families in WW II -- not to mention WW I.  But sacred ground means something different when it is fought on your own home soil.

Every year the veterans of D-Day return to this part of France on June 6 -- fewer every year.  They relive those moments when they somehow survived and changed the course of history.  And below them, on the white sandy beaches, families continue to live.   

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