Thursday, November 11, 2010


In honor of Armistice Day (or Veteran's Day, as we 'muricuns call it), I thought I'd take a brief intermission from my usual frivolous ramblings and share some photos and reflections from a recent trip to Normandy's World War II memorials and first landing beaches. If you prefer light-hearted material go ahead and skip this post and come back tomorrow when regular programming is scheduled to resume.

Although I've been to France several times, the Normandy war sites were never high on my list of things to see. Not only am I not much of a history buff, but the sites are spread out and difficult to access by train--my preferred method of getting around. However, when the study abroad company that I work for offered me transportation, food and accommodations to chaperone their student trip to Normandy I was only too happy to accept the offer.

The first stop on our tour was the Museum of Peace in Caen, which was a truly incredible museum. The choice to focus on "peace" instead of war or memorial really changed the experience, because rather than addressing the horrors of war (à la the traumatic D.C. Holocaust Museum) or the politics and ideology behind them, the museum posed the more philosophical questions of the definition, the obstruction and the price of peace. The result was a very global, unbiased view of conflict, where the narrative was no longer about "good guys" and "bad guys," but about universal human suffering and attempts to overcome it.

The architecture of the museum expresses its message in a beautifully visual way. The long, flat concrete building is hauntingly reminiscent of a bunker. A jagged divide in the center illustrates the wounds of war, "repaired" by a fragile glass skylight of peace. The small door beneath the skylight represents the allied entry into the impenetrable Nazi wall, and the exterior of the building bears the inscription: "La douleur m’a brisée, la fraternité m’a relevée, de ma blessure a jailli un fleuve de liberté" ("Pain has broken me, brotherhood has raised me, from my wound flowed a river of freedom")

A peace sculpture amidst world flags in front of the museum:

The next day took us to the Musée de Débarquement, or Landing Museum, on the site where British forces built the ingenious floating port that enabled them to import supplies without seizing pre-existing and well-fortified port cities. Jagged concrete masses protruding from the waves testified to the violent history they had witnessed, as did odd pieces of the port along the shoreline:

Learning about how things really went down made me realize how America-centric all of my WWII grade school education had been. Contrary to the way it seemed in my head, Americans were only part of the liberation force (which was heavily British, as well as Canadian and Australian). Most of the brilliant strategy and construction of port materials was British, as was the port itself (the American attempt failed). Even after the landing was successful, our "liberation" of occupied French towns essentially consisted of destroying them one by one. The museums were filled of photos of waving, "liberated" French countrymen, standing besides a pile of rubble with an American flag planted in it. The statistics of war casualties (and the alarmingly high percentage of civilian deaths in European countries) were humbling and horrifying, making me ashamed of America's hesitancy to act and of our continual accusations of cowardice towards the French.

However, despite America's reluctance and relatively "'protected" geographical position, the fact remains that we did play a big role in ending the war. The most moving part of the weekend was a visit to the American Cemetery and the nearby Omaha landing beach, both of which, like an embassy, are located on "American soil". Between the flags, the pine and oak trees and the high number of English-speaking, Yankees cap-wearing families paying tribute to their countrymen, it really did feel oddly American:
And its sobering fields upon fields of graves were as starkly beautiful as they were sad:
Fallen Jewish soldiers were marked by Stars of David, fallen Christians by the standard cross. Many of the tombstones were decorated with medals or flowers, and I wondered if they all still had relatives or friends making the pilgrimage after all of these years, or if it was the homage of inspired strangers:
I liked the inscription on the unknown graves: "Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms, known but to God":

After walking through almost a whole field, I finally found a soldier from my home state: John Armacost. I left him a shell from the beach, just as I had, on occasion, done for the grave of a student taken before his time at my college, grave sat atop a hill overlooking the bay.
A mural from the inside dome of a memorial, depicting angels alongside fallen soldiers, battleships and fighter planes:
Another memorial, with a beautiful, spiritual statue:
Right before we headed back to Paris, I walked down to Omaha beach to spend a few minutes on the shores that had served as the American entry point into Nazi territory a half-century earlier. Unlike at the earlier port site, here the pockmarks of bunkers and shells had long since been erased by the waves. Soothed by the sound of the water and the wind, I tried to picture the chaos that had one reined here; the long battle, followed by a slow, grueling advance. I imagined the sand refilling the scarred earth even as soldiers bore the bodies of their friends up the hill, to the ground that would serve as their final resting place.
But it was also just a beach; like any other beach. Which was rather comforting. When I looked back up the hill I had clambered down to get to the water, the flag on the top reminded me of what had been. But looking at the sand, at the reflections of the late afternoon sun, I was reminded of what is, of constancy and renewal, of life. I was reminded of the earth that was restored to the French, of which I, myself, am a beneficiary.
So whether it's veterans or armistice that you choose to honor today, happy remembrance day, dear readers. Peace be with you.

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