I have always dreamed of standing on Omaha Beach on a rainy and cold morning at low tide, standing by the edge of the water and looking inward. Until recently, I never had. No matter how many times I had visited France before, I always needed to be somewhere else, or was too busy to really imagine. I could never devote my mind to the water and the beach and the memories that, for me, were history but for those who took part in the D-Day landing were the pivot of their lives. Imagining a battle long gone is an act of will and imperfect in the best of circumstances, in spite of the fact that I have read voraciously on this battle. It is an act of will to force yourself to believe, to know, that something extraordinary happened here. The morning I visited Omaha Beach, a man was racing a horse drawing a sulky up and down on the sand, as if to challenge my intentions.
The invasion took place at dawn on June 6, 1944. A North Atlantic storm had hammered the beaches the day before June 6 and would resume a few days later. On the day the forces came ashore, there was a break in the wind and rain. But it was still cold, wet and terrifying. The invasion took place at low tide. The Germans had placed obstacles that, at high tide, would be submerged and tear out the bottoms of landing craft. They were revealed at low tide. But that meant that the men who landed would have go across a vast, flat expanse of sand to a sea wall that is no longer there. I tried to imagine what it was like to force yourself to walk across the beach with heavy packs and machine gun fire raking the beach. I think I would have frozen. Death was random that morning, and no amount of skill or courage would prevent it. A man placed his soul in the hands of his God and moved forward. On a peaceful day when the only movement was a horse, sulky and rider, it still took me about five minutes to go from the water's edge to the place where the sea wall had been in June 1944. I tried to feel what the soldiers must have felt. In some battles, there is a degree of wit and skill that gives you the illusion that you might have control over your fate. There could be no such illusion at Omaha Beach. Some lived, some died, and virtue had little to do with it.
The Significance of Omaha Beach
I focus on Omaha Beach not because the British at beaches codenamed Sword and Gold, the Canadians at Juno or the Americans at Utah were less brave than the men at Omaha, but because the defeat of Nazi Germany was sealed that day on Omaha Beach. The plan of the invasion was to land the British and Canadian forces to the east, as far as the town of Ouistreham. The Americans landed at Utah, at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula, and at Omaha. It was a 50-mile front. There was no chance of creating a continuous front that day, but the expectation was that the landing forces on the five beaches, plus the airborne troops behind enemy lines, would link up and create a foothold that could withstand German counterattacks.
An enormous number of things went wrong that day. Landing craft could not make it into the beach, and men drowned when they left the craft under fire and could not swim with their equipment. The landing craft came in at the wrong place. The naval gunfire and air forces could not destroy the German positions. The airborne assault was chaotic as troops were scattered all over the region. The amphibious tanks had trouble being amphibious.
I reflect that had the modern media been there, they would have declared the landing a failure and demanded that Eisenhower be investigated. Even after the landings proved a success, I can imagine op-ed pieces and television commentators, as well as senators and congressmen, asking how Eisenhower could not know that naval gunfire could not clear the defenses. All the planning in the world is of little value when chance, the enemy and miscalculation intervene. Those who have not fought wars demand precision from commanders that they themselves are incapable of in their own, much simpler lives. One hundred and sixty thousand troops landed within 24 hours on a 50-mile front. That it was chaos was inevitable. That it achieved the mission changed history.
It was not clear that Omaha could be held. The German troops deemed inferior by Allied intelligence fought with courage and tenacity. I loathe Nazi Germany with a personal hatred. I am at a loss as to how to evaluate a man who fights with gallantry for a cause I loathe. I am not speaking of the cause, but of the man. At Omaha they fought so well that it seemed that most of the men crossing the vast beach would die and those who made it to the sea wall would lose the spirit for the next step.
If the Omaha Beach invasion had failed, a gap would have been left between the British and Canadians to the east and Utah on the peninsula. Bernard Law Montgomery, commanding the British troops, had said he would take Caen the first day. He failed to do so. That meant that there was no anchor for the British position, and that German armor could have contained and reduced them, attacking them from Omaha Beach and all other directions. The artificial harbors -- the Mulberries, as they were codenamed -- were supposed to be at the town of Arromanches and at Omaha. Without Omaha, there would have been only one Mulberry for landing the follow-on equipment and supplies.
If Omaha had failed, I think Eisenhower would have had to withdraw. If that had happened -- and perhaps he could have drawn some solution from the looming defeat -- then the invasion would have failed and no other invasion would have been possible until nearly a year later. A landing could not take place in autumn or winter. That meant the Soviets would have faced the Germans, now secure in the west, for another year. They had already lost perhaps 20 million and no matter how great their rage, they would be facing perhaps years of slaughter. The farther west they went, the shorter the German line, as the European Peninsula narrows. The Soviet Union could have been forced to make a separate peace as Lenin had in March 1918. How much more could the Soviets take, regardless of the blood debt they owed Germany, is a question worth asking -- the concentration of still-capable German forces on a shorter and shorter front might have proved unbearable. It is one thing to ask for sacrifice with an end in sight. But how much can you ask from your people when all there is for them is war and death, and there is no end?
It is not unthinkable, then, that the Nazi regime might have survived should the Normandy landings have failed. Germany's domination of the European Peninsula might have continued. These are not far-fetched thoughts. If Germany's domination had continued I certainly would not be here. The Hungarian Jews, including my family, were being rounded up and sent to camps that June. My mother was taken away with four sisters. Two were alive when liberated in April 1945. My mother would not have survived another year.
My own existence is a trivial matter except to my children and me. But multiply it by millions -- not only of Jews, but of all those under German domination -- and the landing on the Calvados coast of Normandy was as desperate for those who waited as for those who landed. It was on Omaha Beach that the battle turned, and with it, history.
It was not the generals and staff members who turned the tide on Omaha. It was captains and sergeants who made the difference. Part of it was that they had nothing to lose. If they stayed there, they would die. But it takes enormous courage not to be paralyzed anyway. It was training, but you cannot train a man whose soul rebels to do his duty. Yes, they are your buddies, but there are many armies in which all of the buddies decide they've had enough. There was something else -- a primordial belief, either pride or a love for their own, if not as complex as patriotism -- that caused them to go on. There were other armies in World War II in which the men didn't. At Omaha, the men fought and won. This is a key puzzle that historians will not be able to answer -- why they fought as they died. Why they redeemed Europe from itself.
The Ambiguity of Power
This was considered the good war. The U.S. forces were welcomed as liberators, their sacrifice is honored on French soil in a cemetery on top of the bluffs that reminds us of what we lost. French children tour the cemetery in hushed tones. It is a sacred place and a place that binds us together. There has not been another war as clean and proper since then, and I think there will not be one again. Power, as I have said, leads to ambiguity. This was true in World War II as well. The Soviets believed the United States and Britain deliberately refused to invade before 1944 because they wanted Soviet blood to break the Wehrmacht first. They have never really forgiven us for that. The Americans say that we were simply not ready to go until 1944. It is an interesting argument. It is the beginning of the ambiguity of power. Roosevelt clearly preferred Soviet deaths to American. He was the American president, after all, and the United States wasn't ready. But what constitutes readiness -- when we can do it with the least cost, or when it is most needed?
The Americans emerged from the war with enormous power. The use of power is never clear-cut, and it wasn't clear-cut in World War II. During D-Day, news from the battlefield was censored, and censors read and edited letters home. The goal was to keep secret things secret. But of course, it was never clear what needed to be secret and what was convenient as a secret, and the ambiguity started there and haunts us today. The greatest secret of the war had to be protected. The British had penetrated the German code (and the Americans the Japanese code). This was the most valuable thing -- that we had the ability to read the enemy's thoughts. Out of these things -- censorship, eavesdropping and code breaking -- emerged the mature National Security Agency and what is called the national security state. Some overstate its significance. They claim that it is suppressing free speech and creating a totalitarian state. Perhaps, but then those who have made this charge must explain how they are able to make this charge. Surely a totalitarian state would not let them reveal the truth.
All of this is for another day, but it was born in World War II and came to bear in a very wide beach on a cold and wet day in June 1944. It is not about the evil or goodness of men, but a discussion about the nature and logic of power. Who knows what the results of an uncensored war would have been as the massive mistakes became evident? What would have happened if the Germans had discovered that their codes were broken? Where would millions be if the Allies had not been ruthless in enforcing a lie, that Patton would invade at the Pas de Calais? Truth is the first casualty of war, as they say. But when is a powerful nation not at war or near it? As I said, these are thoughts that arise on Omaha, but they are not thoughts for Omaha. Some things must be left as the trophies the Greeks erected after a victory -- simple and unambiguous.
I was able to go there and vicariously contemplate what I doubt I would have had the courage to do -- cross that beach under fire, and then return to the attack at the sea wall. I marvel at the men who did. I will not say with certainty that they saved Western civilization from moral monsters, but if there were ever men on whom history turned, then it was the men of the 1st and 29th Divisions, and the men of the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions who assaulted Point du Hoc.
I stood on Point du Hoc, a cliff at the western end of Omaha Beach, and it captured the complexity of the battle. The men of the Second Rangers climbed ropes and ladders to the top of the cliff to destroy German guns. The guns weren't there. Intelligence had failed. I can only imagine their rage, but I am in awe of what they did next. They moved inland to find other guns to destroy, and spent days surrounded by Germans, fighting them off, until they linked up with the troops from Omaha.
Point du Hoc was an intelligence failure that cost lives, but was redeemed by the will and courage of the Rangers. When we think of the inevitability of geopolitics, the power of American industry against a declining Germany, the superb command and control of the Americans that had planned every bit of Omaha, it is at Point du Hoc where this all becomes ambiguous. The planning was wrong. It was a handful of men who turned defeat into victory. Was it Greek geography or King Leonidas' 300 who made history? I come away from Omaha thinking that life is far more complex than a theory.