Greatness on a human scale

At first light on June 6, 1944, American paratroopers were already on the ground in Normandy, France, ahead of a ground invasion that would begin at 6:30 a.m.

Allied troops stormed five beaches, capturing four of them with only light resistance from German forces. Omaha Beach was a different story.

America lost 2,000 sons, brothers and husbands in the amphibious assault on Omaha Beach. By day’s end, the heroism and tenacity of the fighters won the prize: The Allies had a foothold in France, and the campaign to rid Europe of Nazi domination could begin.

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and his staff conceived the massive attack under the code name Operation Neptune (part of a broader strategy known as Operation Overlord). Today, we remember it simply as D-Day.

At the start of World War I, many politicians questioned whether our national interests would be served by involvement in a European conflict. As the clouds of World War II formed, the same arguments arose. In fact, President Franklin Roosevelt was forced to maneuver around non-interventionists in 1941 so the United States could arm Britain to resist Germany — in a war that we were avoiding.

Virtually all fragments of isolationism disappeared after Pearl Harbor. When America’s troops hit the beach on D-Day, those charging into the fray had a clear sense of mission.

It can be tempting to treat that historic moment as a quaint snapshot from a distant era. A time when national character was more wholesome. When questions of honor or morality could be defined almost by social consensus. In truth, World War II was fought at a time of fierce political divisions, when seeds of great racial and economic upheaval had already begun to sprout.

The “greatness” of the war years was not something embodied in our political or social institutions. The greatness was what Americans saw in each other on the individual level.

Seventy years have passed since that dramatic day on Omaha Beach. An NPR report from this year’s ceremony in La Cambe, France, describes American veterans arriving by bus. The young soldiers from 1944 are now in their 80s and 90s, and many walk with canes. French locals, some who lived through the war and others who are children or grandchildren of that generation, greet the veterans with tears and laughter to escort them through the village.

This is no time or ideology or politics. It is a warm, human moment honoring these men who may be making their final trip to Normandy.

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