Two weekends ago, I went back to America.
Don’t get too excited, it was not the America where all my friends and family live – it was the American soil in France, where soldiers died in the final battles of World War II on the D-Day beaches.
I used to dislike studying WWII. It was boring and seemed irrelevant to high school (read: self-centered adolescent) Anne. Coming to Europe changed it all for me: here, I can see the conflict in the dilapidated buildings of bombed-out Northern cities, in the ubiquitous remembrance plaques and war memorials that stand on street corners. It became harshly real when I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau in Poland. I recently met a French person who had worked in fields as a lookout for buried land mines. Everybody here has ancestors, relatives, friends, and favorite places that were impacted by the nearness of the world war battlegrounds. Being American in the war was a privilege, simply because – at least at a national level – we could choose whether or not to get involved, when, and for how long. Europe did not have that choice.
The day dawned appropriately: somber gray rainclouds hid the sun and an icy wind whipped around us as we strolled through the American Cemetery, searching for connection with the dead bodies by finding people from our home states. We stumbled upon some anonymous graves. I wondered if there were families that never found their loved ones.
After the cemetery, we hiked down the hills and through the dunes to the beach. We touched the sand where hundreds of American, British, and Canadian soldiers had fought to stay alive as they were fired on by waiting German troops. We took windblown pictures with the flag.
And, on the way home to Lille, we stopped by Arromanches – the Canadian beach – for a 360 degree film about the Allies’ role in the conflict. We didn’t spend very long here due to the icy wind and rain (the “Normandy goodbye”)…but there were nice views nonetheless.
It was important to be reminded of the USA’s place and participation in the world. In the grand scheme of the war, we played a small part, but that part was essential. In the world, we play a small part — but that part is likewise essential. I felt humble and necessary. Global events can overwhelm even the most powerful countries, and if I’ve learned anything from all my meanderings in the former war zones, it’s that we must learn about how they happened before so they will happen differently, and never “again.”