I could no more avoid the media coverage of D-Day this last month than I could have participated in the historic assault fifty years ago. Both were impossible. At thirty-nine I am too young to have been on the beaches of Normandy. And the coverage of D-Day has permeated the T.V., radio, and Plain Dealer.
This celebration was made for television. Cameras recorded the amazing septuagenarians parachuting on to free French soil. There were interviews with the children of fallen soldiers. And there were the endless pictures of the French and English countryside.
But the best interviews, the best pictures, were of the men. They told stories of individual bravery and ingenuity. They talked about their buddies, the friends who never left Omaha Beach. And, they put a human face to the heroics of D-Day.
Another soldier was being interviewed. My friend Jim and I were watching this on the news as our kids ate hot dogs and potato salad outside at the wooden picnic table.
The soldier was describing Eisenhower’s activities in the last few days prior to the invasion. We were shown the woods where the general slept in a tent. We were then told about the General’s visit to the paratroopers prior to their deployment.
“He cheered the paratroopers on. He was there to see them off. He knew that many of them would be killed. As the planes took off, the four stars on each shoulder must have been a terrible weight. He turned around. His shoulders were stooped. There were tears streaming from his eyes.”
Did you hear that, Jim?
Eisenhower crying. They never told us that. We never knew.
That changes everything.
We grew up on a steady diet of John Wayne and Gregory Peck. Even George C. Scott’s Patton smacked his cowards. We were given a World War II where all of the American soldiers were brave, heroic, and ready to die for this country. Fear? Hell no! Doubt? Of course not! They were Americans. The image was so strong that Ronald Reagan, who spent the war in Hollywood, started to believe that he had been a real soldier.
We were never told that these men had been afraid. We weren’t told about the English hospitals that were filled with soldiers suffering from self-inflicted wounds. We were never told that Eisenhower cried.
Did all of this matter? Of course it did. We grew up in the shadow of the Vietnam War. We didn’t know why we were there in the jungles of South-East Asia and we were afraid to go. We had no point of reference. As far as we knew, everyone wanted to fight for this country. Everyone but us.
Our fathers volunteered for the Army or Navy during World War II. They didn’t talk about it. This was something they had to do.
Popular culture, the movies and T.V. showed valiant men stoically conquering evil. There was no fear, doubt, or tears. Now, in 1994, we learn that Eisenhower knew that he was sending these boys to their death, but that he had to. This is how wars are fought. We were never allowed to know what he had thought about it.
There were real heroes in World War II. There were men and women who risked their lives in hope that their efforts might help their leaders build a better world. They made real sacrifices. And many, many of them died in battle.
The world is a very different place today. A great deal of the credit belongs to the men who planned and executed D-Day fifty years ago today. A great deal of the blame goes to the ongoing propaganda machine that never let us know that Eisenhower cried.