The first time I visited the Normandy beaches, almost 20 years ago, I went with my father-in-law, who'd landed there on D-Day. We walked on the wide sand and through the green, wind-blown fields, and he looked a little lost, as many veterans do when they wander those cross-covered cliffs.
You could see him gazing out to sea, but searching inside himself for the buddies who'd died, and for that young man who used to be him. Since then, we've visited other sites where he fought and his friends perished. The experience is always heartbreaking, not only because of the sad fact that death is, but because of the terrible scale of it in these places—a spectacle of killing which, thank God, we haven't seen in my generation's many wars. At least, not yet.
The chronicler of G.I. Joe's World War II was Ernie Pyle. When he was killed by a machine-gunner on the little Japanese island of Ie Shima in April 1945, after so many years reporting on the fighting, he had a draft column in his pocket that describes as eloquently as anything I've ever read the weight of the carnage on those who survived it. He was thinking back on Normandy:
"Those who are gone would not wish themselves to be a millstone of gloom around our necks," Pyle wrote. "But there are many of the living who have had burned into their brains forever the unnatural sight of cold dead men scattered over the hillsides and in the ditches along the high rows of hedge throughout the world.
"Dead men by mass production—in one country after another—month after month and year after year. Dead men in winter and dead men in summer.
"Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous.
"Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them.
"These are the things that you at home need not even try to understand. To you at home they are columns of figures, or he is a near one who went away and just didn't come back. You didn't see him lying so grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in France.
"We saw him, saw him by the multiple thousands. That's the difference. . . ."
He well and truly hated war because he saw what it was from so close.
Pyle, the son of a tenant farmer, mixed easily in the enormous conscript army mustered by the United States to take on what was, truly, an Axis of Evil. He knew what his country was fighting for, and his columns never doubted the rightness of the cause, even though he admitted he lost sight of it sometimes in the middle of all the killing. The way Pyle wrote about the common soldiers' lives, sharing their pains and frustrations and horrors as well as their good humor and common sense and uncommon valor, made him probably the most widely read and best-loved correspondent of his time. But he well and truly hated war because he saw what it was from so close.
Pyle understood that even the highest ideals get worn down by endless fighting. "I had come to despise and be revolted by war clear out of any logical proportion," he wrote in 1943, when he began a brief trip back to the States. "I couldn't find the Four Freedoms among the dead men. Personal weariness became a forest that shut off my view of events about me. I was no longer seeing the little things that you at home want to know about the soldiers."
When George W. Bush makes his D-Day anniversary visit to the Normandy beaches on Sunday, we're going to hear a lot of well-honed speeches trying to compare the righteous combat forced on us in World War II with the war of choice we've entered into in Iraq. But only speechmakers from coddled, comfortable backgrounds who've never heard a shot fired in anger, much less seen "dead men by mass production," would dare use the blood of those who died at Normandy 60 years ago to try to cleanse their conscience of those dying in Iraq today.
The United States entered World War II, as it had entered World War I, to defeat a proven aggressor and bring the war to an end. The Bush administration actually won its righteous war, in Afghanistan after the aggression of September 11, 2001. But that victory came too quickly, it seems, for our leaders to get much satisfaction from it. So they sent our kids to Iraq. And what is the goal there today, now that the reasons we were given at first have proved to be grand delusions? To spread democracy? To extirpate the very idea of terrorism? To work the will of God? Sixty years ago, those who thought they could teach the world how to live the only right way, which was their way, and launched unprovoked wars claiming this was the only thing could do to defend their values--those were the people we called the enemy.
But let's be clear about the soldiers. Our soldiers. Those men and women in Iraq today are, indeed, just as heroic as those at Normandy. They have been put in the wrong place at the wrong time for the wrong reasons, but that's not their fault. They are fighting and dying and trying to build something good as soldiers, despite the most foolhardy civilian leadership in the modern history of the United States. Like any G.I. Joe in World War II, they're making the best of a bad situation.
In his day, Ernie Pyle's columns read like the letters every soldier wanted to send. But today's soldiers, at least the ones who write to Shadowland (firstname.lastname@example.org), do a pretty good job of telling the story themselves.
Last week, for instance, I got a long letter from Lt. Col. Richard Allinger in Baghdad. ...
"The American soldier in Iraq is a fine human being," he writes. "Young men and women, a zillion miles from home, watching their friends die day after day, being mortared..., eating lousy food, baking in the unbelievable heat. Young men and women who are attending too many memorials and last roll calls. These young men and women suffer these indignities routinely and go out each day to help rebuild a school, build a water line, repair a bridge, fix the substations, install air conditioners in orphanages, the list goes on and on. These young men and women are heroes, not prison guards gone wild. They are the bravest most incredible people I have ever had the pleasure to know."
To which I say, Amen.
The full column is available on Newsweek.com.