Monday, November 22, 2010

Normandy: Far from Africa

Africa is far behind us.  We no longer travel the lands of the Maasai, the Zulu, the San. We’re far from the Zambezi yet the vision of the river exploding over a precipice into an immense cauldron of foamy mist then bursting into the sky hundreds of feet above the river, visible many miles in the distance wants to endure. The memories of our seven month journey across the African continent have begun their gradual fade like silver halides on celluloid film. Would our memories of Africa diminish so slowly!  
Now we are traveling the lands of the Normans, an extinct European tribe that inhabited the west coast of France centuries ago then faded through miscegenation into the genetic fabric of Western Europe.  The visions of modern Normandy are shockingly tranquil.  We miss the entrancing wildness, the earthy rawness, the compelling power of Africa. Europe is a conquered land. The waters of the Seine are calm, ripple-less, sedate though stunningly picturesque.  This peaceful river is filled with barges and lined with farms and smoky factories.  There are no hyena here, though yesterday we saw some ducks. There are no crocodiles here, either,  though we drove by a close relative apparently at Alligator Bay near Mont St. Michel. We chuckled. We’re traveling in a Volkswagen Golf.  We don’t need a high clearance 4X4 mobile residence we named Kiharambee! with all-weather tires for muddy roads, skid plates to protect our engine from thumps on stone, or a snorkel to cross rivers.  Our overland titan which seemed more like a friend than car by journey’s end is strapped into a ship’s container somewhere off the coast of Angola heading for Felixstowe, England, destined for the equivalent of automotive mothballs.  We’re cruising bolangeries, rotisseries, chateauxs and cathedrals, lots of cathedrals. The World Cup 2010 is history and South Africans are now free, once again, to express themselves as they feel fit.  So they say. They claim to have held off their concerns and complaints to serve the interests of the country and support the World Cup, but now it’s their time to strike. Millions of them went to the streets to protest low wages, walking out on their patients in hospitals and children in classrooms.  I asked in a recent blog: “Can the World Cup Save South Africa?” The naivete of the question was intentional but it seems that some South Africans believed it possible and now recoil at the reality of post-World Cup South Africa.
History brought me to Normandy, compelled by events that shaped my life.  My first language is English.  I was born Catholic.  My cultural roots are linked indelibly to the emancipation of some heady English who revolted against their King, wrote a declaration of independence, and created the United States of America.  Self-reliance, independence, the belief that I can be whatever I want to be are the dictums of my life.    Who I am is intrinsically linked to these ancient tribal lands by the events that occurred here. I’ll explain if you’ll endure a brief review of the historical backdrop that led me here.
 Long, long before it was called Normandy, this region was Celtic, the tribe of my father.  The Celts covered much of Europe, including northern Italy, all the way to modern Turkey. They were unruly and wild, preferring to fight naked, a single collar of twisted metal around their necks, and blue paint on their faces.  Almost four hundred years before Christ was born, the Celtics of northern Italy, now called Lombardy, destroyed Rome and plundered the city.  From the ashes of that horrible destruction grew a Rome that would last, arguably, for nearly two thousand years until the 15th century when the Islamics invaded and destroyed the last remnants of the Roman world in Constantinople. What does this have to do with me?  “Nothing” said the child in me a long time ago.  I no longer think like that.
One can hardly take a step on Normandy soil without retracing the steps of the ancients. Julius Caesar, the oft referenced Roman general from the Italian peninsula, the land of my mother, conquered this land, then called “Gaul,” and temporarily tamed it. He launched an invasion of the island off shore called Britannia, now called England.  Later, Emperor Claudius finished what Caesar started but couldn’t finish himself. We visited the encampment of Claudius just north of Normandy on a hill top in Boulogne-sur-Mer. We ate frog-legs and calamari and sipped French wine where Roman soldiers pitched their tents. Almost five hundred years after the Roman conquest, Germanic tribesmen over-ran the region and wiped the Romans out. Five hundred years later Scandanavian pirates called Vikings invaded the land. These marauding thieves, murderers, rapists, loved the land so much they stayed. The locals called them the  “Norsemen” (men from the North) and the conquered land became known as Normandy. 

The crypt of William the Conqueror in the "Abbaye aux Hommes," or Mens Abbey of Caen. 

In 1066, William of Normandy, a Viking at heart and by blood, crossed the channel waters and for the final time in the history of the island conquered it.  England became France and that invasion would bring together a collection of unruly tribesmen, Celts (the indigenous Anglos), Saxons (Germanic invaders),  and the new French (really Scandanavians) into the unlikely brethren who would father the United States, not just with people, but with ideas.  It was because of those ideas that Americans from the United States, including friends and relatives of my father, returned to the shores of Normandy on one of the most fateful days in the history of western civilization.  On the 6th of June, 1944,  Americans, in an ironic twist of historical events, invaded the land which had been so instrumental in the foundation of who I am, who we as Americans are, not to conquer it but to liberate it from Germans who had once again invaded.  That is why I returned, to say thank you to those boys. We’ve come to the cemetery of Omaha Beach.

The American cemetery at Omaha Beach is located in land occupied by German troops until D-Day. In the distance is the English Channel.  

Below the bluff of Normandy’s Omaha Beach wide beige sands stretch for miles to the east and west then disappear in the distance. The channel waters are populated by wind surfers, bathers, fishermen, and kite flyers. Lovers stroll the wet sands, sunbathers dot the dry sands.   Young people jog.  Some play soccer. I saw a girl in a bikini playing goalkeeper. Exploring guests freely explore the labyrinth of pathways that cut through the  grass covered dunes that rise from the beach and lead to the bluff.  It’s a warm, sunny day in August 2010.  There is peace on the bluff.  It’s quiet, serene. 

Omaha beach today, a few miles west of the cemetery.  The German troops waited on the edge of the bluff which can be seen in the distance.

It wasn’t this way as the sun rose on the 6th of June of 1944, the day this section of French coastline was forever renamed “Omaha.”  The bluff was covered with anxious young German boys with machine guns lying in wait in heavily fortified bunkers.  The expansive flat beaches were covered with barbed wire.  Wooden pikes imbedded in the shallows were aimed north towards England to block landing craft.  The sea bed and shorelines were peppered with land mines. The German occupiers called this collection of deadly obstacles the Atlantikwall.  Instead of windsurfers riding in harmony with the waves, thousands of small craft fought the waves to off-load American boys, many just teenagers. They were equipped with rifles, grenades, ammunition, morphine to blunt the pain of wounds or hasten death, and K-rations.  They shuffled through the water, shoulder to shoulder from the landing craft to the shore line, exposed to the hail storm of bullets that the German boys rained down upon them from the bluff above.  At nearby Utah beach more Americans pursued dry ground. British and Canadian boys struggled towards Sword, Juno and Gold beaches.  All in all these boys numbered 160,000, enough to field over 10,000 football teams, 16,000 baseball teams or 30,000 basketball teams. Would they were just playing games! The numbers stun one’s consciousness, the reality beyond comprehension. It was the largest amphibious assault in history. Twenty five thousand parachuted behind the German boys on the bluff. Two hundred thousand occupied the 5000 watercraft off shore that delivered the boys to this theater of war.  And what high drama it was! It was staged by the most prominent military minds of the time.  The details were authored by the generals of the allied forces called Eisenhower, Montgomery, Bradley. They called it “D-Day.”  The “D” it is said stood for “disembarkation,” a rather prosaic reference that belied the nature of the event which was more like a day of Deliverance.  D-day began the deliverance of France, returning it to it’s rightful owners, the people of France, but it was also a day of reckoning when the souls of thousands, from Baton Rouge, Columbus, San Francisco and Boston, as well as those from places like Hamburg, Munich, and Heidleburg were delivered to their creator.  
I needed to see this place, the open stretch of beach the generals ordered American boys to cross while exposed to the cross hairs of waiting German marksmen, the bluff where the enemy waited like hungry predators, the slope of the climb to the top.  One can peer down the edge of the bluff and imagine what must have been.  Down there in the shallows and the sands were our boys outfitted to kill, their eyes looking upward to where I look downward. The sun was rising to their left.   In the dim of the early morning muzzles flashed on the ridge. What were they thinking as they faced what must have seemed an improbable task? How would they get by the barbed wire, the mines, the pikes? How would they get to the top of the bluff? The countless boys were exposed in the approach like proverbial “sitting ducks on a pond” for the Germans to pick off at will.  Their fear was palpable, each soldier’s heart pounding under the influence of adrenaline,  the cold of ocean water at sunrise penetrating their woolen government issued undergarment, the shock of witnessing comrades fall, their flesh torn apart by hot metal, the haunting cry out of “mother,” “mom,” “mommy” filling the air. After the first fell, there was another, and another, and another.  Thousands died that one morning.  Most of the boys from the allied side were American. On neighboring beaches British and Canadians fell.
My father wasn’t here. He was fighting in the Pacific. Still I owe this visit to my father, to his friends from Treat Ave in San Francisco, to his brother, his cousins, to all the boys, from San Francisco to New Orleans to Boston,  who put their lives on the line so that I could have the freedom to make a trip of a lifetime, so that children born to a world in post-World War II America and Europe could have choices, so that boys and girls can grow up and have choices to be doctors, as I may never have become, or football players, American and European, or whatever fancies their liberated whim.  I have benefitted all my life because of the sacrifice of these warriors.  My children have benefitted from the sacrifices. My grandchildren and the generations who follow will benefit from those sacrifices. It was time to visit those who paid the ultimate price for the freedom of others, freedom too often taken for granted by those who received it. It is a gift from men and women we would never know. The fallen would never see the beneficiaries of their generosity nor would they die knowing that their sacrifice was of any value to others. The beneficiaries would never get closer to the fallen than the grass above their permanent resting place nor would they ever hear our words: “thank you.”
Behind the visitor facing the beach of Omaha while standing at the bluff is a perfectly manicured and uniformly green lawn spreading as far as the eye can see.    Starkly white crosses and Stars of David spike the green in geometrical, precise patterns reminding the visitor that solemn order was restored from the chaos of the few moments of terror faced by the boys who stormed the beaches at Normandy.  In the distance the crosses get smaller and smaller seeming to disappear over the edge of the gently sloping resting place. Approach and you can walk among the remains of those who embody the spirit of freedom and courage.  Approach and read a name. There’s Albert Garcia Rodriquez from California.  Not far from him is David Kramer of New York on a Star of David. I knew a boy with this name.  Now he is a man. One David died so another can live. Every once in a while there is no name.  There are only these words “Here Rests in Honored Glory A Comrade in Arms Known Only to God.”  

The cross marking the grave of Albert Garcia Rodriquez of California.

The Star of David marking the grave of David Kramer

These are the names of dead people, young people, often 17, 18, and 19 years of age.  Men and a few women considered but boys and girls by the many who knew them at the time, by the their moms, dads, teachers, pediatricians, confessors.  I have called the men “boys” because although men at heart they knew little of life beyond their childhood except for the terror brought to them the day they encountered other defiant boys with guns on the bluff above Omaha Beach. Their consciousness was snuffed when it was barely mature enough to make a legally independent decision.  They were boys, sons, brothers, grandsons and nephews, commonly referred to as soldiers, who died, many within minutes of each other in the bloody salt water of Omaha beach below the bluff that lines the edge of their permanent resting place. You dare not speak too loudly or use words too many or too carelessly in fear that you dishonor the gift of these fallen Americans. They gave their lives for those who walk above their permanent rest.  How do I say thank you?  
Most of us will never face what those soldiers faced when they disembarked the landing craft off shore at Omaha Beach.  Most of us will never be asked to confront the question: would I offer my life for an idea, a purpose, a principle? The thought taxes our mortal and ephemeral nature. The fragility of their precious existence was never the more apparent to them.  Though I try, I fail to conjure the terror, the fear of what seemed to each his imminent death. I recall the image of firefighters rushing by the hundreds into the doomed World Trade Center. It is still fresh. We all witnessed their selfless act. I multiply the vision of those hundreds by a thousand fold. I try to comprehend its magnitude, but I can’t.  I am humbled by the bravery of the boys, the young men, who disembarked that fateful day in June 1944. 
That day was the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany’s dream to create a 1000 year regime, a pan-European empire that would hopefully stretch to Russia, maybe even include it. The “Third Reich,” as the empire was to be called, was the brain child of an infamous German politician whose name is forever synonymous with “evil.”  In his dream countless must and did die, but the story of Omaha Beach wasn’t his story.  It was the story of young men for the most part, American and German for the most part, many of whom would never leave the beach or bluff alive, would never see their mothers, fathers, girlfriends, brothers, sisters, or friends again.  The boys on the beach would certainly have preferred kicking an oval ball on a field in Nebraska, shooting a round ball through a hoop in San Diego, skiing the snowy slopes of Colorado, or maybe just helping a parent or a grandparent on a farm in Iowa. The boys on the bluff would certainly have preferred kicking a round ball on a field in Hamburg, maybe walking with a girlfriend through the parks of Berlin or the forests of Bavaria. However, their leaders had something else in mind and as a result they would forever remain where they are.
The question that arises from within bursts forth in a cry.  Why?  It’s the “why?” fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, friends, cousins,  even casual acquaintances, really anyone and everyone asks.  It is a question asked by everyone who ever cared for another since the first time one person took the life of another in a fight, a conflict, in war, in battle. It is asked every day still in Iraq, in Afghanistan.  It’s the eternal “why?” with the eternal answer:  because of the arrogance of men.  That is why boys die in war.  That is why mothers, and children, and old people die in war.  If men weren’t arrogant there wouldn’t be war.  If there wasn’t the belief by some men that their right to live supercedes another’s there would never be war.  Boys die, and today girls die in increasing numbers, in conflict because of the arrogance of men, and the endless cycle of arrogance and violent death can never stop until there is no more arrogance.  
The story of war always gets down to the question of who’s right and who’s wrong. If no one ever starts a fight, no one would ever have to finish it.  Does anyone question the belief that David had a right, even a duty, to slew the incarnation of oppression, a man named Goliath?  We take for granted the right of Joshua to tear down the walls of Jericho, kill the Cananites, and take over a “promised” land.  Our forefathers took what they believed was given to us by God, and with the blessing of the post World War II leaders of Europe and America we have done it again, in the same land, causing world-wide strife that seems to have no end.  That this permission is canonized in the most referenced, beloved and ancient of our writings belies the fundamental doctrinal nature of our belief in the right to kill in the name of God.
In the 11th century, it was William of Nomandy’s time to evoke the call of righteousness.  He had no choice but to attack and conquer England because the man in the throne at that time had broken an oath.  For that many had to die and many did.  History was made as a result, as it so often is, because the arrogance of men writes the story of history by deciding who should live and who should die.  I suppose it’s possible that today all Europeans would speak German if the arrogance of the Nazi’s played itself out the way they had hoped.  I suppose it’s possible that all Americans would speak Russian if the arrogance of Russian leaders had played out they way they hoped.
Americans may feel the pride of being “right” in the case of World War II, but I am left with the same empty feeling in my gut when walking the lawns of the American cemetery at Omaha Beach in Normandy as when I walk the wall commemorating those friends and age-mates of mine who died in Vietnam for a cause that few believe today was worth dying for.  It doesn’t really matter, does it, when the battle is done and the dead are laid out for us to honor in the field?  Who was right?  Who was wrong?  The emptiness can not be filled.  The void remains a void.  The loss remains a loss.  The boys are just as dead.  The life that could have been never was and, for those of us who will die in the future because of the arrogance of men, their life will never be. The grief of the mother and father, the brother, the sister, the wife, the son and the daughter never ends.  
When American boys stormed ashore at Omaha, they were imbued with the passion of being on the right side of a great argument.  Indeed it is arguable that had those boys not been so imbued, so impassioned, that there would have been much more suffering because the arrogance of the those who started that war was far more cynical, far more lethal, and far more determined than any arrogance in the history of humankind.  Mine is not to question the need or motive for sending American boys.  Mine is to only to make note of the cost of human arrogance.  
We are want to use words like “right,” “justifiable,” even “ethical” and “moral,” when we talk of war.  They are words used like salve on a wound that never really heals.  War, on the grand scale, the justification of taking another’s life for a political or religious purpose is just wrong.  There is no other thought for me as I see dead boys laid out on a beautiful green carpet of perfectly cut grass, above a blue ocean, on a sunny day in Normandy.  
The British have a memorial nearby where their dead boys were permanently interred.  They honored their dead boys as we do, imprinting the soldier’s name and a religious symbol on the stone at the head of each grave. When one enters the memorial there are more words in stone. With a touch a thorny irony, and buoyant pride, the British etched the following to bring the history of their island and that of Normandy to a full and vicious circle, paying homage to those who lost their lives in the successful effort to clear Norman lands of the young German boys and their commanders. They note “Nos a Gulielmo Victi Victoris Patriam Liberavimus.” Freely translated the Latin means:  “We who were once conquered by William of Normandy have come to liberate the lands of those who once conquered us.”  So spins the Great Mandella, the “Wheel of Life.”  So spin the authors of war, the authors of its history, the chroniclers of death.

                                      -Tom Simpson 

In the photo above, the inscription "Nos a Gulielmo Victi Victoris Patriam Liberavimus" is etched on the cross beam above the pillars.