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A Tale of Two D-Day Cemeteries
Reflections, for Memorial Day, on my recent trip to the American — and German — military cemeteries in Normandy.
“People say there are no atheists in foxholes,” wrote Kurt Vonnegut. “A lot of people think this is a good argument against atheism. Personally, I think it’s a much better argument against foxholes.”
Humans have fallen victim to countless tragedies throughout history, wiped out by natural disasters, plagues, and famines. Wars, however, are of our own creation.
The sheer scale of that human tragedy envelops you when you visit the beaches of Normandy, as I did a few weeks ago. The horrors unleashed by the Nazi regime are overwhelmingly visceral there, particularly as I drove from Omaha Beach to two cemeteries—one American, one German—and tried to make sense of the senseless.
Today, Omaha Beach is just a picturesque beach, vast stretches of sand overlooked by beautiful cliffs. But when you’re standing on it, mentally aware that the sand was previously soaked with blood, its impossible to not feel a sense of awe for what those soldiers did. They disembarked into the shallow seas, knowing full well that thousands upon thousands of bullets would be flying at them, with nowhere to hide.
Who Should We Decorate?
Today is Memorial Day in the United States. The holiday dates back to post-Civil War America. The impulse to recognize the sacrifice of the fallen was widespread. On May 1, 1865, 10,000 formerly enslaved Black adults and children—who had been freed by the war—marched in Charleston, South Carolina to honor of 257 Union soldiers who had been buried in a mass graves after dying in a Confederate prison camp.
Three years later, in 1868, General John A. Logan proclaimed the first national observance of “Decoration Day”, urging citizens to decorate the graves of Union soldiers.
It came just a few years after Logan expressed outrage that southerners were decorating Confederate graves. “Traitors in the South have their gatherings, day after day, to strew garlands of flowers upon the graves of Rebel soldiers,” he noted angrily in an 1866 speech.
From the beginning, then, there was a tension in these memorials, between paying respects to those who had died—the sons and fathers and brothers—and a debate over whether you could ever separate out the injustice of a war’s cause from those who fought in it. For some, the answer was absolutely not. After all, Confederate soldiers fought to keep others enslaved, one of the great stains on human history.
But how do we make sense of David Bailey Freeman, the youngest Confederate soldier, who enlisted when he was eleven years old? Or Charley King, the Union drummer boy who, at the age of thirteen, died at Antietam? Surely, these children, regardless of which side they fought on, were both victims. Memorials inevitably bring us face to face with philosophical questions of justice, collective memory, free will, moral culpability, and individual vs. national responsibility.
From Shining White Marble to Rough Black Stone
The American military cemetery in Normandy is an astonishing sight. Perched above the beaches below, it is physically beautiful. There’s row upon row of shining white marble headstones—mostly crosses, but peppered with Stars of David, marking the Jewish soldiers who gave their lives fighting a regime that was perpetrating the Holocaust.
The site shimmers as you walk through it, sunlight reflecting off the marble, as it stretches seemingly endlessly, through the ranks of 9,387 graves.
My grandfather was a telephone company man who was in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was shipped off to London to help prepare for the D-Day invasions, though he wasn’t part of the invasion force.
I first visited the American cemetery when I was 19 years old, as I was studying abroad in Paris. I went alone, on a quiet day, when a cemetery is at its most peaceful. And while I was overwhelmed by the scale of the loss, it was also a gut punch to realize how many people buried there were younger when they died than I was at the time, a mere teenager, feeling like I was just beginning my life. They, unlike me, would never return home.
Here’s a photo I took a few weeks ago, of the white marble crosses along with some Stars of David:
The largest military cemetery in Normandy isn’t, however, the American one. It’s La Cambe, the Nazi German military cemetery. On this recent trip, I decided to visit it.
The contrast is immediate. Whereas the American cemetery is bright and white, the German one is dark and black. The gravestones are cut from a rough, plain brown/black stone, a striking juxtaposition with the pristine white marble. And rather than being perched on a clifftop overlooking the vast expanse of ocean, La Cambe is on an ordinary little field, a few dozen meters from a busy two-lane highway.
La Cambe contains the graves of 21,222 German soldiers.
Some were monsters—the worst of the worst. Adolf Diekmann is buried there, a Nazi officer in the Waffen SS who orchestrated the skin-crawling massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane. Diekmann ordered the killings, in which 643 civilians, including 247 women and 205 children, were either burned to death in a church, or slaughtered with machine guns. Only one villager survived.
But as you walk through the cemetery, you mostly see teenagers. Roughly eighty percent of the gravestones are for men and boys under the age of 20. The youngest soldier buried there was 16 when he was killed. (The oldest was 72).
Here’s one gravestone I photographed, covered with fresh rain, of two boys—one who was barely 18, the other still a few months from his 18th birthday. They died within a few weeks of D-Day. Both, by fighting in a Nazi uniform, were perpetrators. There can be no moral equivalency here, no downplaying of the horrific abuses of the regime they fought for. But it was impossible for me to not also see these boys—one not even an adult—simultaneously as victims of the Nazi regime. Perpetrators and victims.
The dilemma emerges because war graves have a dual purpose: one part individual and personal, the other part collective and pragmatic.
A war grave, for the family of the fallen, is about the person. This is a 17 year-old kid who was a son. But a war cemetery, as a public space, serves a broader social purpose: to teach about justice, virtue, and evil.
Even if we accept that a 17 year-old conscript bears less moral responsibility than a 40 year-old Waffen-SS officer, there can be social utility in ignoring that nuance in pursuit of reinforcing the more important message: that the Nazi scourge must never repeat itself.
These are the moral wrinkles brought to the surface by warfare. Social science research from the Milgram Experiment to studies of brainwashing and propaganda, has demonstrated how seemingly ordinary people can commit extraordinarily brutal acts. If you study authoritarianism, as I do, it’s impossible to miss this complexity. Ideology, it turns out, is the catalyst of mass atrocities, and when it’s at its most potent, as in totalitarian states, few are immune from its poison. How would you behave today if you had been born into a family in North Korea?
This is not to absolve perpetrators, or the regimes they fight for, but to better understand them—and to understand how a 17 year-old German teenager ends up dead in a cemetery in France.
The Glorious Dead?
Memorial Day is a day to remember, to honor, to pause—in awe of ordinary people who, when they were asked to, did extraordinary things. I felt moved and grateful walking through the American cemetery in Normandy. Their sacrifice was powerful.
But as I read inscription after inscription praising the glory of the fallen, I recalled the story of Major General Lucian K. Truscott, Jr., who was asked to give a speech to dedicate the American cemetery at Nettuno in Italy, a short time after World War II ended in 1945.
Truscott wasn’t a man for fanfare. He had no time for the political blowhards who knew nothing of the horrors of war, but who were eager to celebrate the fallen dead with a speech and a ceremony. When it was his time to speak, he stood up, turned his back on the gathered crowd, and instead addressed his former troops—the men he had commanded—who were buried in the ground.
Bill Mauldin, a journalist with Stars and Stripes, who was there for the speech, recounts what he said:
He apologized to the dead men for their presence here…He said he hoped anybody here through any mistake of his would forgive him, but he realized that was asking a hell of a lot under the circumstances...Truscott said he would not speak about the glorious dead because he didn't see much glory in getting killed in your late teens or early twenties. He promised that if in the future he ran into anybody, especially old men, who thought death in battle was glorious, he would straighten them out. He said he thought that was the least he could do.
Then, he turned, without looking back at the gathered crowd, and left.
Wars sometimes become necessary—to defend innocents from horrific aggression wrought by tyrants and dictators. But as we remember the sacrifice of the brave, we must also remember the broader lessons: that totalitarian, fascist ideologies are a scourge of our species and that the human cost of wars is a nauseating waste.
Thank you for reading The Garden of Forking Paths. If you’re interested in similarly thorny debates, I’ve made two podcast episodes about the complexity of moral blame and collective punishment: The Unthinkable Olive Branch and War Criminal or Victim?