Seventy years ago today, using equipment largely made in Detroit, the greatest invasion force in history crossed the English Channel and landed in France – an event called D-Day.
More than 2,000 American, English, and Canadian soldiers died that day, a number far smaller than expected.
But a 100,000 more began the process of liberating Europe. Eleven months later, after another 100,000 Americans had died, Nazi Germany surrendered.
They don’t make as much of this anniversary as they used to, because few of the heroes are left.
Thirty years ago, I walked those beaches, and tried to imagine doing what those men had to do. I couldn’t, even when I walked among the sea of white crosses in the American military cemetery in Normandy.
In past years I’ve interviewed veterans of D-Day, and many others of that war. Some talked freely. Others didn’t. None called themselves heroes, or exaggerated what they’d done.
You did get a sense that they took some satisfaction in doing a job that had to be done. Those who survived had one advantage over the veterans of our wars and pseudo-wars today: no ambiguity. The entire nation honored them. They also fought evil regimes that had first declared war on the United States.
Yesterday I had lunch with a friend of mine, a distinguished attorney and historian whose idealistic, brilliant son earned three degrees and became an urban planner for the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation. Then, he felt it was his duty to go to Afghanistan with the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The young man came home last summer on medical leave, almost exactly a year after one of his best friends was killed by an improvised explosive device. He complained of a little back pain, but otherwise seemed his old self. Until August 11, when he hung himself in a hotel room in Grand Rapids.
He was 33 years old.
Afterwards, his father found his notebooks and diaries of his time in Afghanistan, and read what it was really like. He now has some idea why life had become too painful for his son.
But Afghanistan is an undeclared war, as all our wars have been since World War II. There is no longer a military draft. No one has to go, if you don’t count those who can’t find a decent job.
Nobody honors or celebrates the veterans of Vietnam or Desert Storm or even Korea, the way we do the last survivors of World War II. They won’t honor my friend’s son as a veteran at all, though that war killed him as surely as if by a Taliban bullet.
Sometimes I think the men who wrote the U.S. Constitution were indeed smarter than we are. They set it up so that only Congress could declare war. They did not want us to get into conflicts lightly, or without strong national support.
That helped keep us out of wars. But presidents now have ways to get around that. And I think we might want to reconsider this. If we only fought wars formally declared by our elected representatives, civilians, and veterans might view them differently.
And maybe some wouldn’t later have to die.