What emotions should one experience standing on the small rise, looking out across the sea of stark white monuments marking the graves of 9,386 identified American patriots and an additional 1,557 who are, even after 50 years, considered missing in action? Do we feel sadness for lives lost prematurely? Is it anger at the maniacal madness that required the lives and blood of young men and women to be wasted in order to counteract and eliminate that madness? Is it resignation that this is the way nations have always resolved disputes and in all likelihood always will resolve them? I don’t know.
The Normandy American Cemetery lies high above the place once and forevermore known as Omaha Beach. It lies just off the D 514 road, connecting the towns of Colleville-sur-Mer and Vierville-sur-Mer on the northern coast of France. It is a peaceful place, this 172.5 acres of American soil surrounded by the now serene and verdant part of France known as Normandy. The grounds are meticulously manicured. The emerald green grass is full, lush and carefully trimmed and edged. It is as smooth as a carpet.
There are three Medal of Honor recipients and four women buried here. A brochure describes the grounds, the chapel, the monuments and the memorial. It informs us that the material used in construction is limestone from the Côte d’Or and granite from Brittany. It says nothing about the reasons for the cemetery’s existence.
The cemetery is bordered on the east, south and west by Austrian pine, laurel, cypress and holly oak. Flowerbeds brim with blooms of many colors, and the Garden of the Missing is bordered with beds of polyanthus roses.
This could be a yard and lawn anyone could be proud of. Except for the row upon row of stark white marble headstones breaking the continuity of the green and extending as far as one may see. The Star of David marks the graves of those of Jewish faith. A simple Latin cross marks all the others. The luxuriant grounds would be an excellent place for children to run and play hide-and-go-seek. But there is no sound of children playing. There are no children. There is no sound at all except for the waves pounding a steady persistent drumbeat on the shore below. People speak, when they speak at all, in whispers. It is a place where the dead rest an eternal rest, and where the living come to see, and feel, and pay respects to those whom they do not and never will know.
There is a somberness that becomes a part of everyone who visits here. It is not so much an awareness of the enormity of events transpiring on the beaches below over 50 years ago, but rather a realization of how much more than lives were lost on those now calm stretches of sand and marl. There can be no monument to lost opportunities for relationships that lie beneath each stone. The father who never saw his last-born child lies there. That child, now grown to adulthood, can never enjoy the opportunity or right to grow up with a father, nor will its own children ever know the joys of a doting grandfather. All of this potential lies beneath a simple monument in a country far away. How much was and will be forever lost to each of them?
There are other tragedies brought home by a visit to this place. A young woman comes, not to visit her father’s grave that lies back in a small town in North Carolina. She comes instead on a pilgrimage to visit the place where his U.S. Navy ship was blown out of the water by a mine during the initial assault on Omaha, and where he suffered permanent and disabling injuries. Although he survived that day those injuries ultimately caused his premature death 29 years later to the day at the young age of 47.
There is no explanation one can give an 18-year-old watching her father die that adequately resolves the conflicting emotions of losing a parent as the result of a war she did not know and could not understand. It is difficult for her to believe the sacrifices made in the cause of liberty were truly worthwhile. There is no assessment of the pain engendered by the feeling she had been cheated and deprived of a relationship that was warm and loving, and for which she could never be repaid. She would never be able to share with him her many achievements nor enjoy the privilege of having him participate in her wedding.
Most importantly, in the face of such loss there can be no solace in realizing that all that happened in the distant past was for a purpose even as noble as that for which the young men and women buried at the American Cemetery in Normandy died. The enormity of the implications in the ongoing lives of all who come after confounds the ability of the human mind to understand. Each person affected has their own story and their own reasons. Telling the story sometimes helps. But nothing can assuage the pain.
And so it is impossible to know what one is supposed to feel when visiting a burial ground of either side in any war or in any country. Some may come away with nothing more than an eternal sadness. People’s impressions can only be their own and must be shaped by their own life’s experiences. There are lessons to be learned, of course, but also the realization that those who need most to learn the lessons of war and conflict will never visit these sacred sites. Nor will they ever experience the passionate influence of having done so.
Only those who aspire to live their own life more productively and thereby benefit the world can profit from the emotional impact of viewing the results of some nation’s and some past leader’s madness. Hopefully they may leave with a firmer resolve to work more diligently and effectively for peace and understanding between those who differ.
It is for this objective that such monuments to war and its aftermath must exist. Perhaps that is their only significant, if futile, purpose.