A FEW weeks ago, President Mitterrand of France and Britain's Queen Elizabeth II rode under the English Channel in the newly completed train tunnel. It was a symbolic first trip by ``land'' between Britain and France, and the end of an era thousands of years old: the physical separation of Britain, now an island no more, from Europe.
No would-be invader of Britain had successfully crossed this channel since 1066, when William the Conqueror - the ancestor of Britain's royal family - defeated English King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. The Romans had crossed before that and fought their way to Scotland, but the Spanish Armada went down to disaster, and the channel was safe: that is, until 1940.
In that year, Hitler's invading Nazi armies did what the Germans failed to do in 1914: cut off the French and British forces in the north from Paris and drive France to defeat. Britain stood alone against the Nazi onslaught. A handful of Spitfire fighter planes and their brave pilots held off the Germans until Hitler, for some reason, canceled the planned invasion.
The first time I saw the American military cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach in Normandy was as a college student in 1973. I had been in France for several months and was due to return home shortly. Like many, I was riveted by the sight of almost 10,000 grave markers denoting the final resting places for American soldiers who died on June 6, 1944 - D-Day - and in ensuing battles.
The cemetery consists of row upon row of white crosses punctuated by an occasional Star of David. On each is engraved the name of a soldier, his unit, and his state: New Jersey. Arkansas. Montana. Michigan. Alabama.
Suddenly it hit me. Many of these men were my age when they jumped out of their landing craft and into the cold Atlantic, struggling out of the surf onto this beach in the teeth of the Nazi ``Fortress Europe.'' Only there, along the invasion coast, were the Germans. ready. Many Americans took but one step on Omaha Beach - their last.
I realized that I was standing there only because they had been there before me. I realized that in a matter of days I would do something they were unable to do: Go home to the United States of America; see my family and my girlfriend; and live a normal life.
They knew why they were there. They knew that a great scourge lay over Europe, that a dictatorship as brutal and bloodthirsty as any ever known must be smashed and utterly defeated: a regime that classified whole nations of people as subhumans to be destroyed, that flourished on slave labor, that brazenly repudiated the art, culture, religion, and the very norms of Western civilization.
And they knew that all across the darkened continent, men and women fought, died, and prayed for the day when someone would come and save them. And these men - with others from London, Liverpool, and Manchester; Toronto, Banff, and Vancouver - these men came.
At Pointe du Hoc, US Army Rangers spent D-Day scaling the 100-foot cliffs to silence German heavy artillery at the top. Today, a monument to their valor stands on the spot, alongside the German pillboxes. The area is still cratered from the intensive air bombardment and shelling from offshore naval vessels supporting the Rangers. I went into the bunkers and looked out the narrow horizontal openings, trying to picture what the German soldiers must have seen on that morning, when the sea was full of ships and men. By the end of D-Day, this place was already behind Allied lines. I picked up a small piece of concrete from one of the bunkers and took it with me; I still have it today.
In 1986, my wife (the girlfriend aforementioned) and I made a longer visit to Normandy. We stopped in Ste.-Mere-Eglise, near the coast, the first French town liberated from the Nazis. A major tourist attraction is a small Roman Catholic church, on whose steeple an American paratrooper got caught and had to hang for two hours as the battle raged. In the summer, the church drapes a parachute and a paratrooper manikin from the steeple as a reminder of the day the liberators came. Inside is a stained-glass window like those in many such churches. Instead of angels descending from heaven, however, it depicts green-uniformed American paratroopers dropping from the sky to sweep away the Nazi occupiers.
In Ste.-Mere-Eglise they remember, too.
There are other cemeteries in Normandy. Just a few miles from Mont-St.-Michel, the famous island monastery and home of the omelette, stands a huge circular mausoleum surrounding a large, simple cross.
In it are interred 10,000 German soldiers. Wreaths from families, loved ones, and the German government are everywhere. These are men who died resisting the invasion. They never returned home, either. It is a profoundly sad place.
In 1940, before the lights went out, the French government made a last-ditch plea to the United States: If the Americans would enter the war, the French would fight on.
But in 1940, Americans had a different agenda. It was not so different from one that many of us have today: Let the rest of the world fight its dirty wars, commit its massacres in Nanking, China, and Guernica, Spain. Let the Germans and the French and the British battle it out. Hadn't they spent the last two centuries doing just that?
Americans had intervened in 1917, and what good did it do? We fought to bring democracy to Central and Eastern Europe and instead there was fascism and Bolshevism. We were far away from it all. We were safe. We didn't need the rest of the world. Why should Americans fight and die in Europe a second time?
And yet if we had intervened in 1940, if we had stuck our nose in while there was still time, think of what might not have happened. Would Hitler have been able to invade the Soviet Union, where 20 million died? Would the deportations and deaths of 6 million Jews in death camps have been possible? Would millions of others: Frenchmen and Hollanders, Lutherans, Catholics, and Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals and Gypsies - and yes, some Christian Scientists - have died there as well?
These questions I must ask myself and the world must ask itself as it struggles with how to cope with Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, and all those other wars that have broken out after the collapse of the Soviet empire. By early involvement, do we not preclude the necessity of even worse involvement when it is too late for many innocent victims?
The image of that cemetery has never left me. Years later, I wrote a song in honor of the men buried there. Today, 50 years later, it is well that we stop for a moment and remember those who fought: the Americans and the Canadians, the British and Free French, the Poles, Czechs, Norwegians, and Dutch - all the members of the Allied forces who liberated Europe from the Nazi horror.
Because of them, more free people than ever enjoy the benefits and prosperity of democracy today. Because of them, my generation could grow up with a security and prosperity hitherto unknown, even in the midst of the cold war.
Our present well-being was dearly bought. And it was bought by average men: men who climbed into bobbing landing craft, sailed across a choppy sea, and, when the ramps were lowered, charged out onto a sandy beach in France and sacrificed everything.