Long-remembered heroism

A visitor finds unexpected solace in Normandy.

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    D-DAY: American soldiers, along with Allied forces, landed on the French coast in Normandy on June 6, 1944.
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The South African teenager, whom I'd met in Athens, was appalled. "American!" he shrieked, accusingly.

Not long after, a Polish man suggested I try to pass myself off as a New Zealander so I would have the opportunity to hear "what other people really think of Americans." I wasn't sure why he thought this was the point of my travels overseas.

Like many Americans in Europe over the past eight years, I was asked dozens of times, "How could you have elected him a second time?"

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But then I went to Normandy.

There, on the site of one of the most wrenching battles in American history, I found some peace.

I had been in the area only an afternoon when it occurred to me, standing outside a postcard shop in the small town of Isigny-sur-Mer, that I had wandered into what might be the last corner of Europe where American heroism at war is still celebrated. Here, the American military is still synonymous with sacrifice; the American flag still flies in most villages in gratitude that extends 60 years later – even to people who voted for Bush.

I went back to the same shop two weeks later and bought a postcard displaying a grainy black-and-white photo from the archives of the Musée de Débarquement. In the picture, two American soldiers are resting somewhere near the coast after the landing on June 6, 1944. The older man has his head, neck, and right hand bandaged. The other soldier, who looks about 16, is staring blankly into the camera. Below the image are four brief lines of poetry printed side by side in French and English: "They know/ the price of sacrifice/ In combat/ a world away..." I tucked the card into my bag to give my boyfriend, who was serving his second tour in Iraq.

There is, of course, an ulterior motive to the local love of all things American here: World War II history rivals Camembert as the region's most lucrative "product." The area's immense historic importance graces every plot of a vast swath of land from the length of the coast to 50 miles inland, and each town in between has gone to great effort to underscore its role in that one chapter of time.

Sainte-Mère-Eglise, a couple of miles inland from Utah Beach – as it is still called today, in English – identifies itself on a road sign as "the first town liberated." Bayeux, 30 miles to the east, calls itself "the first town liberated and intact." Bayeux has the English cemetery; the main American one is just outside Colleville-sur-Mer off Omaha Beach, and the German cemetery, with 21,000 graves, in La Cambe. A plaque in the British cemetery explains further: "Many other airmen and Special Forces are buried, singly, or in small groups, in the village cemeteries and churchyards of rural France, resting in graves tended and cherished by the communities into whose care they came."

Outside of the towns, each with its own museum or monument, many fields bear a small plaque or wooden cross commemorating the front lines of the war that passed like a shadow across each farm.

I had always envisioned Normandy as a singular event with a single location like so many other historic tourist sites: Here the Wright brothers took the first flight, or here General Lee surrendered to the Union Army, or here, on this precise spot, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. One sign points you there, and another sign waits for your photo op, signaling you to put your feet right there.

But in this part of France, there are signs pointing vaguely to "Normandy 1944" in every direction. The invasion's geographic scope and the power of its imagery two generations later is overwhelming.

I spent much of my time wandering around the area with a girl I'd met who was German, and I constantly felt awkward for her. The one time she and I talked about it, she said she constantly had the impression that people were talking about her without realizing she was in the room.

I was feeling something entirely different: a pride I had all but forgotten. I usually was hesitant to mention that my boyfriend was in Iraq when I encountered new acquaintances in Europe. It was inevitably the beginning of a very long conversation, one that often required me to explain that his presence there didn't mean we supported the policy behind the war.

I saw how Iraq had come to dominate foreign views of America. Spend enough time traveling abroad, and you start to believe it yourself – that your home is synonymous with military might, which is defined by a specific war, that is desperately unpopular in many places.

Normandy, though, offers an American the greatest souvenir – context.

It's easy to feel that an unintended casualty of the war in Iraq has been the selfless reputation so many soldiers earned with their lives in Normandy. But I also felt comforted knowing there remains one place we're still thought of that way.

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