Commemorating D-Day and Trump

By David A. Lehrer


Next week will be interesting and, likely, sad. The world will commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day---the beginning of the final chapter of World War II. Leaders will gather at Normandy to remind the world of the legendary courage of the young men who faced withering German fire to take the beaches and cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.  

Having just been at Normandy last month, the cliffs and the Nazi gun emplacements alone [without speeches] make transparently clear what a colossal undertaking D-Day was and evidence how brave and self-sacrificing the thousands of young men who fought there were.

Today’s Washington Post offers a warning at what might well transpire next week when President Trump joins the commemoration.                 

Paul Waldman writes,   

 The president has shown a repeated willingness to inject nationalistic rhetoric and political partisanship into moments once aimed at unity. For Trump, there is no water’s edge for politics, no veneer of non-partisanship around military or national security matters.

The president, who did not serve in the military before becoming commander in chief, has feuded with Gold Star families, blasted political opponents on foreign soil, and mocked Sen. John McCain, a prisoner of war, for being captured by the enemy.  

 Trump’s antipathy for the late senator was so well known that the White House this week requested that the Navy keep the USS McCain out of the president’s line of sight during a recent trip to Japan, so as not to rile the president.

 We all know that the chances that Trump will do something to ruin this occasion are extremely high. As much as he loves talking about “my military,” there’s one part of the values we associate with the military that Trump is not so comfortable with: sacrifice.

 In addition to his irritating disposition, Trump has shown himself incapable of decent, let alone, soaring rhetoric---he manages to make seemingly fluent texts sound trite and pedestrian. It’s almost guaranteed, that no matter what he says, he will sound disingenuous [self-sacrifice, courage and bravery aren’t words that are usually associated with Trump].  

 We can only hope that he doesn’t ruin the last commemoration for the few veterans of that historic day who will be present.  

 It might help all of us make it through the ceremony if we re-read the soaring rhetoric of Ronald Reagan who had no difficulty reminding his audience of what happened forty years before on the sands and cliffs of Normandy: 

We stand on a lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of France. The air is soft, but forty years ago at this moment, the air was dense with smoke and the cries of men, and the air was filled with the crack of rifle fire and the roar of cannon. At dawn, on the morning of the 6th of June 1944, two hundred and twenty-five Rangers jumped off the British landing craft and ran to the bottom of these cliffs.

Their mission was one of the most difficult and daring of the invasion: to climb these sheer and desolate cliffs and take out the enemy guns. The Allies had been told that some of the mightiest of these guns were here, and they would be trained on the beaches to stop the Allied advance.

The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers at the edge of the cliffs, shooting down at them with machine guns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After two days of fighting, only ninety could still bear arms.

And behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there.

These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. And these are the heroes who helped end a war. Gentlemen, I look at you and I think of the words of Stephen Spender's poem. You are men who in your "lives fought for life and left the vivid air signed with your honor."