Heroes of history

Special Report | Remembering the long peace, and those who made it possible

Issue: "Global shame," June 15, 2002

Along the coast of Normandy it is the florists who are the first ones up on June 6. In the early northern light of summer they count their wreaths of red, white, and blue. They arrange more greenery, replace prematurely spent carnations, and then patiently wait their turn. The first knot of veterans will arrive at Sword, Juno, and Gold Beaches at break of day, just as British and Canadian troops did on D-Day 58 years ago. Then begins a long procession of wreath-laying ceremonies up the coast, recounting as they go the landing of the troops who began the long liberation of Europe; remembering at each beachhead the thousands who died.

Just inland from Utah Beach at Ste. Mere Eglise a wax figure of Private John Steele, the U.S. paratrooper whose cords snagged on the town's church steeple, looks so real dangling from the church's spire that onlookers gasp when they first spy it. Beside the church, the town square where the 82nd Airborne Division parachuted into a gun battle with Germans is filled with an assortment of wartime look-alikes. Frenchmen in their 20s have hauled from their grandparents' closets the trophies of that long-ago day and are wearing them: the jumpsuits of the 82nd Airborne, helmets of the foot soldiers who followed them, camouflage netting, the old compass watches, and canteens. A French woman holding a baguette wears a WAC uniform and Daisy Mae hat, authentic down to seamed stockings.

Once these celebrations drew more Americans, but over the decades of peace they have become hometown holidays. Only four of the surviving paratroopers have managed to travel over from the United States. They stand straight in their blue blazers and breastfuls of medals while down the street a band begins playing "The Star Spangled Banner."

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Now French schoolchildren file out of the florist's shop bearing wreaths for the arms of the living veterans and for the monument to the dead. French dignitaries and a contingent of today's 82nd Airborne, fresh from Fort Bragg, salute both living and dead fighters. Mosquito bombers roar overhead in final tribute.

The day has only begun. All along the coast celebrants will trample the beaches and mill through the gravesites of D-Day. At the American cemetery on Omaha Beach, flowers and flags adorn every grave marker. Large flags for all 50 states line the walkway.

In the streets the veterans hold forth, recounting the battles with increasing clarity as the day and the champagne toasts grow long.

George is a returning vet who was a British tank driver. He stands by the shore and points to the exact spot on the quay at Arromanches where he first drove his tank out of the sea. He describes being shelled upon landing, shot off the turret as he and his company rolled into Belgium, and finally upended by a bomb while crossing the Rhine. "Then I was finished," he says with a laugh, "but I saw most of Europe set free." And only then is it apparent that one of the legs beneath his flannel trousers is not really his.

What came after the "longest day" for these soldiers were long years to endure it: to take the seats reserved for veterans at the front of buses and train cars and to join groups like the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association.

It has been well enough said already that the world inhabits a new age, where warriors without citizenship or stripes turn the commonplace into battleground. But it is actually an age that began with the D-Day invasion, the liberation of Europe that first hinted at American dominance. With the Soviet Union erased, even the most cynical political scientist has to acknowledge that the "American Age" is upon us.

The U.S. economy produces one-quarter of the world's GDP. Military spending of the United States equals one-half of what the entire rest of the world spends on arms. American culture is a powerful force for good (and for evil). The growing democratization of the world, where cellphones, CNN, and soda are inalienable rights, has also democratized the violence.

Of the al-Qaeda terrorists imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, only 10 percent are Afghans. The rest are from 20 different nations. The 19 hijackers of Sept. 11 carried 35 aliases among them; they came from at least four nations and together kept addresses in 10 different U.S. cities. In starting a war, they chartered planes by force and attacked buildings filled with civilians from 83 countries.

Multinational causes can work both ways. Since Sept. 11, 142 nations froze assets of terrorist groups; 136 offered assistance of some kind to the United States; 89 granted over-flight rights to U.S. military; 76 yielded landing rights; 23 agreed to host U.S. forces.


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