EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appeared at John O’Sullivan’s “From the Editor” column in the June 27, 1994, issue of National Review.
I remember V-E Day well because we had a neighborhood party to celebrate it. As I recall, there was a table stretched the length of the street, groaning under a vast weight of cakes, sandwiches, jellies, pies, cookies, and so on.
But since British rationing at the time limited everyone to an egg and two ounces of butter a week, my memory may have exaggerated this feast. And since I was only two years old the previous June, my memories of D-Day are still hazier.
Like others, however, I have been deeply moved by the ceremonies commemorating D-Day. The sheer scale of the invasion, the heroism of the allies, the formidable obstacles confronting the invaders, and Fortune’s extraordinary throws of the dice–Rommel’s absence from Normandy for his wife’s birthday, or the navigational mistake that landed troops at a lightly defended stretch of coast–all evoke strong emotions of admiration, wonder, patriotic pride, and, of course, relief that the invasion succeeded.
It is perhaps not odd that I, or most National Review readers, should feel such emotions. Those are the kinds of emotions we tend to feel. To my surprise, however, they have been almost universal, even among those to whom patriotism is usually suspect.
My colleague Peter Rodman diagnoses the admiring media coverage of D-Day ceremonies as a tribute from baby-boomers to their parents who secured fifty years of freedom.
Mr. Clinton’s Modest Speech–”We are the children of your sacrifice”–supports this view. But he also seemed to be saying something more personal: “I hope I would behave as you did in like circumstances.” Or even: “I was I had behaved as you did.”
Did I say a tribute to “parents” above? Make that “fathers.” There have been occasional strained attempts to suggest that Rosie the Riveter played an almost equal role in the liberation of Europe. But these have faded into the formulaic triviality alongside the pictures of men leaping heavy-armed from transports into the waves, running up beaches under fire, and scaling cliffs to disable big guns.
Yes, there were brave nurses and women soldiers playing vital auxiliary roles in the rear. But the main work of fighting and dying was a male privilege. As Roosevelt’s D-Day prayer put it: “Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set forth upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, or religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.”
Solemn and contrived through this prayer is, it actually sounds more natural than our present blather about women in combat. Or gays in the military. Yes, there were homosexuals among those who fought and died on the beaches. But they did so as “our sons” in the common cause, and not as art of some civil-rights quota.
For notice FDR’s phrase “our nation.” The D-Day ceremony is the remembrance of a common American struggle–one shared, to be sure, with British and Canadian allies, but reminding Americans of their common history and destiny.
It is the opposite of multiculturalism. Those “sons,” now fathers and grandfathers, were doubtless proud members of ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities. But those identified were absorbed into a larger American identity. They were Doughboys, GIs, or in wartime British slang, “Yanks.” My father, who had spent most of the war in the British merchant navy but who found himself on D-day Plus One anchored off Omaha Beach in an American hospital ship, the USS Naushon, made this point inadvertently when reminiscing about his old shipmates: “They had those American names–like Paderewski.”
D-Day, by reminding us of what we used to be, inspires the hope that perhaps we can be like that again.