June 6, 1944 was the Allied invasion of Nazi occupied Europe. The largest amphibious invasion in human history.
On an April 18 in the late 1980s or early 1990s when I was young, my parents bought my sister an elaborate birthday present, and to ensure that I wouldn't be jealous, bought me two books, both intended for young adults. The first was about Mark Twain and the second was about the D-day invasion, the 65th anniversary of which was this year. That second book was the beginning of my passion for history. From that day, I was obsessed not only with D-day, but with world war two in general (and especially D-day. Actually, I hate when people call June 6, 1944 D-day because D-day is the military term used for any military action. The invasion of Normandy is a better name for June 6, 1944.)
From that April 18, after reading the book, I would save every penny of allowance or that I earned to spend on history books. My parents used to get mad at me for blowing my money on expensive, hard-cover books on the war, but I had to read them. My father once asked me if I knew everything there was to know about D-day. I answered, how can I know what I don't know? That's why I keep buying the books.
That gift I received on April 18, lead me to a university degree in history, an interest in politics and international relations and ultimately towards law. It was formative for me, and I still have it.
On this, the 65th anniversary of the invasion, the "history channel" aired the Spielberg-Hanks movie "Saving Private Ryan." I have very mixed feelings about it.
For anyone unaware of the plot: after attacking the beach on June 6th, a unit of US soldiers are sent to find and safely bring home a US paratrooper whose three other brothers were also recently killed in combat.
The opening scene where the soldiers first hit the beach is riveting. Prior to seeing Saving Private Ryan, I'm not sure I had ever seen that amount of gore, brutality and graphic depiction of warfare in any other movie, especially any other war movie. The scene is hard to watch, and conveys extremely well what those first soldiers went through, how horrible it must have been, and how impossibly small they must have felt their chances of surviving were. The historical reality, however, is that on the beach depicted in the movie, "Omaha beach," the US soldiers barely advanced 300 yards in 24 hours. They were pinned down by German artillery and machine guns firing from perfectly placed and very well defended bunkers on cliffs overlooking the landing beach. The movie, however, makes it seem as though Tom Hanks leads his men to a breakthrough off of Omaha in 24 minutes.
My second complaint about the movie is that the rest of it is fiction. There was no real Private Ryan to be saved. There was no character like the one played by Tom Hanks, and the dramatic device used to frame the story in the movie borders on cliche. The movie would have been much more powerful had it tried to recreate the story of a soldier who landed on that beach and made his way through the next few days in Normandy. No matter how significant that soldier would be or not, it would have been more powerful than the historical fiction of Saving Private Ryan. The fiction aspect of the history, in my mind, turns the movie from a historical document (and great attention was payed to detail in uniforms, equipment, vehicles, etc.) into an excellent war movie.
For anyone with more than just a couple of hours to see Saving Private Ryan, I can give no stronger recommendation than to see the HBO series jointly produced by Hanks and Spielberg, "Band of Brothers." The series is based on a historical work by the US historian Stephen Ambrose by the same name (one of the books I got in a great deal of trouble for buying long before it ever became an HBO series.) The series spares no detail in following a core group of actual soldiers of Easy Company in the US 101 Airborne division from paratroop training, to Normandy and then through almost every major battle in which the US was engaged in Europe right until the end of the second world war. It's a series that's well done, well acted, entertaining, informative and above all, completely true. Again, I can not offer a stronger recommendation.
As I write this, it is now 65 years since D+1. Historically, even at this time, nearly 24 hours after the seaborne troops landed and over 24 hours since the first paratroopers hit the ground, the invasion of Europe was still not sure to succeed. We, living in free countries today, must never underestimate the importance of what happened 65 years ago today.
It would be appropriate for me to end with the powerful lines from the "act of remembrance:"
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning
we will remember them.
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