The Awful Waste and Destruction of War
Earlier this month we commemorated the 70th anniversary of D-Day. There were memorable scenes shown on TV, and words of remembrance in print of the day that changed the course of World War II – and certainly of the world as we know it today.
We saw many of the men who landed on those beaches return as elderly veterans, many of whom were now in their early nineties. The oldest to attend the ceremonies held in Normandy was 97-year old Graham Alvord of Kittery, Maine. A naval officer aboard one of the support ships, his vessel was heavily damaged by a mine on June 7 off Omaha Beach.
Alvord had the distinct honor of being the only American veteran to be received by the many heads of state who attended the D-Day ceremonies at the American Military Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer on June 6, 2014.
“War is a different thing,” he said, “You can talk about it, read about it, see it in the movies. But it’s not the same as if you were there.”
To a man, those who survived D-Day and the subsequent battles they fought until World War II ended in the spring of 1945 believed for the rest of their lives that they had been blessed. 2d Infantry Division veteran, Oscar Peterson, was typical: “I was lucky I survived,” recalling that he said of his war experience, “if I could survive this, I’ll work the rest of my life for nothing to be alive.”
Yet, survivor guilt is also a common theme among veterans. Few have returned to the battlefields of Europe without great emotion. The American military cemetery and the other thirteen British, Canadian, Polish, and German cemeteries are more often than not the scenes of tears by those who visit them. That was certainly the experience of Graham Alvord when he first viewed the sea of crosses at Colleville-sur-Mer. He had no sooner reached the gates when “all of sudden I started bawling.”
Some years ago I became friends with a veteran infantry officer who had fought at St. Lô with the 29th Infantry Division, and after the war remained on active duty and eventually retired as a lieutenant colonel. He was a tough old bird that did not seem at all sentimental. Yet, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day I saw him on CNN at Colleville-sur-Mer with tears running down his cheeks. The place has that effect on just about everyone who visits there. I’ve made three visits to this place of great reverence and each time I’ve been deeply moved to my own tears, walking amongst the graves or reading the names on the Wall of the Missing. There is a sense of tranquility there, just as it is at the other military cemeteries I’ve visited over the years.
In the wake of the great victory for freedom that Normandy represents, one also cannot help but be dismayed over what Ernie Pyle so aptly called “the awful waste and destruction of war.”
On D-Day casualties on both sides were heavy but too often overlooked has been the death of 3,000 French civilians – innocent victims when war came to the shores of France. That figure rose to more than 20,000 by the time Normandy was liberated in August 1944.
Aerial bombing is a very inexact and messy business, and most of those civilians who perished were victims of the endless Allied bombing campaign that all too often was incapable of distinguishing friend from foe. The physical destruction was also inevitably massive, with cities like Caen and St. Lo completely destroyed.
Ernie Pyle toured the Normandy beachhead on foot ten days after the D-Day landings, and what he saw appalled even this battle-hardened veteran war correspondent. It was also enough to make us all stop and consider what he wrote in a thoughtful newspaper column.
“It was a lovely day for strolling along the seashore. Men were sleeping on the sand, some of them sleeping forever. Men were floating in the water, but they didn’t know they were in the water, for they were dead … I walked for a mile and a half along the water’s edge of our many-miled invasion beach … The wreckage was vast and startling. The awful waste of war, even aside from the loss of human life, has always been one of its outstanding features to those who are in it.”
Pyle saw LCT’s that were turned upside down, boats that were mysteriously stacked upon one another, with their sides caved in. It was, he wrote, “a museum of carnage.”
“And standing out there on the water beyond all this wreckage was the greatest armada man has ever assembled. You simply could not believe the gigantic collection of ships that lay out there waiting to unload. Looking from the bluff, it lay thick and clear to the far horizon of the sea and beyond, and it spread out to the sides and was miles wide. Its utter enormity would move the hardest man.”
What was accomplished by the D-Day landings and the campaigns that liberated Europe and ended the war were absolutely necessary but we should never forget that it came at a great cost.
In 1964, when Dwight D. Eisenhower, the general who commanded Allied forces, returned to Normandy for the first time since the war, he issued a heart-felt plea for peace while being interviewed on the wall overlooking Omaha Beach at the American Military Cemetery:
“These men came here – British and our allies, and Americans – to storm these beaches for one purpose only, not to gain anything for ourselves … but just to preserve freedom … Many thousands of men have died for such ideals as these … but these young boys … were cut off in their prime … I devoutly hope that we will never again have to see such scenes as these. I think and hope, and pray, that humanity will have learned … we must find some way … to gain an eternal peace for this world.”
If there is an epitaph for “the awful waste of war,” it surely lies in Eisenhower’s profound words. The world in 2014 is far different than it was in 1944. Countless conflicts have raged since World War II, and although future massive wars seem remote in this new age of small hostilities and terrorism, the eternal peace that he made such a profound plea for remains elusive since the most devastating event in human history ended in 1945.
Memorial Day and Veterans Day are times of remembrance, and so it should also be with the Fourth of July, when we commemorate the founding of our nation. We are indeed fortunate, for a great many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that war such as the two that engulfed Europe twice in the last century has never touched our shores. The calamity that was our Civil War is the closest we’ve come to enduring what millions of others have experienced too many times in other parts of the world.
As I wrote in these pages, and in an op-ed piece for our local newspaper in 2009, on this Fourth of July I hope everyone will stop – even if only for a moment – to reflect on the freedom we enjoy, a freedom that others who came before us earned the hard way for a cause they believed was worth the heavy price.