The Evolution of D-Day in Historical Memory

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There’s a moment in Saving Private Ryan, the 1998 Steven Spielberg film, when the sergeant, played by Tom Sizemore, tells his captain: “Someday, we might look back on this and decide that saving Private Ryan was one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole godawful s***ty mess.”

The one decent thing? What about defeating Hitler? What about liberating millions from brutal foreign occupation? What about stopping the Holocaust?

American soldiers and supplies arrived on the shore of the French coast of German-occupied Normandy during the Allied D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, in World War II. (AP Photo)

There was a time when fighting the Nazis was seen as inherently decent. It did not need a sugary human interest coating to make it palatable. Before Spielberg’s, the last D-Day movie had been the 1962 epic The Longest Day, made when it was taken for granted that some things were worth risking your life for.

“There’s no time for any sob stuff about England, home and beauty,” says the heroic special forces commander, Lord Lovat, played by Peter Lawford. “Remember, our people have had a rough time for 4 1/2 years. They’ve earned the final victory. Let’s give it to them.”

Cinematic reconstructions eventually replace firsthand memories. This will surely be the last time that veterans gather in Normandy in any numbers.

“Let me assure you, what you read in those silly books that have been written about D-Day is absolute crap,” said George Chandler, now 99, who served on a British torpedo boat escorting U.S. troops to Omaha and Utah beaches. If you have lived through anything you later saw dramatized on screen, you will know how Chandler feels.

D-Day is now mainly about political symbolism, and politicians know it. No fewer than 25 world leaders are in Normandy as I write, bringing 12,000 security personnel with them.

Members of an American landing unit helped their exhausted comrades ashore during the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944. (AP Photo/INP Pool/Louis Weintraub)

All sides cram the invasion into their own pet narrative. For Europhiles, it is all about how the EU came together to stop wars. British paratroopers landing on the beaches for the anniversary were pointedly subjected to French customs checks. Marine Le Pen complained that French President Emmanuel Macron was electioneering. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has attended past ceremonies, was conspicuously uninvited.

My own view of that day was beautifully articulated by Ronald Reagan 40 years ago. “Gentlemen,” he told the assembled veterans, in words that still move me, “I look at you, and I think of the words of Stephen Spender’s poem. You are men who in your ‘lives fought for life … and left the vivid air signed with your honor.’”

Reagan went on to make a gentle reference to his own time: “You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty.”

How many contemporary American politicians would unequivocally commit themselves to the defense of the free world as Reagan did on that day when he quoted the Book of Joshua: “I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.”

It is not just that the Cold War is over. It’s not just that many American voters have turned inward, nor that Iraq and Afghanistan have created an anti-war mood, nor even that former President Donald Trump cannot find it in him to be critical of Putin or, indeed, of despots in general.

No, the wider problem is that we have moved from The Longest Day to Saving Private Ryan. Although we are more political than previous generations, more prone to rage about the slightest slip-up by an elected representative or the use of an inappropriate word by a celebrity, we doubt whether any cause is worth crossing half the world to fight for.

Young people feel strongly about many things. But, looking at those mask-wearing campus protesters demanding gluten-free meals and respect for their banana allergies, do we really suppose they would make the sacrifice that young adults of their age did when they plunged into Normandy’s rough waters under a hail of enemy fire?

On June 6, 1944, the English-speaking democracies, along with their allies and auxiliaries, imposed their values on the world, values developed overwhelmingly in the language in which you are reading these words. Civilian government, habeas corpus, free elections, jury trials, uncensored newspapers, and equality before the law. These things became so widely accepted that even dictators had to pretend to acknowledge them. Would British, Canadian, and American youngsters fight as hard for them today? I don’t like to put the question.

Dan Hannan
Dan Hannan
Author & columnist. Dan serves on the UK Board of Trade and is a Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party responsible for its international relations. He teaches at the University of Buckingham and the University of Francisco Marroquín. He sat as a Conservative MEP for 21 years, and was a founder of Vote Leave.

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