Once More unto the Breach: D-Day 75 Years Later
by Ed Simon
The love of arms and the mad wickedness of war are raging.
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost;/That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again and ever again, this soiled world.
Seventy-five years ago, and more than 150,000 men would land on the Normandy coast, arriving on very French beaches assigned the very American names of Utah and Omaha, near where William the Conqueror had once prepared his assault into England, near where Shakespeare imagined Henry V to have implored his troops during the St. Crispin’s Day speech. What was prepared for American and British, Canadian and Australian troops at Normandy was far larger than any invasion launched from sea before, and larger than any since. When boots hit French mud on June 6th, 1945, it was part of an assault that made William the Conqueror’s transit of the English Channel seem tiny by comparison, that showed the logistical insignificance of Henry V’s incursions into Calais.
The Allies had more than 200 warships in the Channel and close to 12,000 vehicles either in the water or flying above the beaches of Normandy, with close to 300,000 men on those ships, and more than two million troops waiting to be deployed back in Britain. After a day, Allied casualties were more than those of the Germans, and none of their major goals had yet been achieved. Even by 1944, the Nazified European fortress established by Adolf Hitler would not have its walls battered down easily. When the Allies came to Normandy, there was no guarantee that all of this would end with Nazi defeat and a bullet in Hitler’s brain less than a year later. History doesn’t give herself up that easily.
Now that women and men born on that clear day in early summer have grown old, now that 75 years have passed and World War II recedes ever further into the haze of hagiography, of breathless History Channel documentaries with their red arrows showing the path from Dover to Bayeux, of Spielbergian sepia and Brokovian implorations about the greatest generation, it behooves us to remember why Europe needed to be liberated, and what risk there is in forgetting the gallons of Allied blood that dyed French beaches red.
By nature, militarism is grotesque. Ribbons and medals on puffed chests, polished black boots and oiled rifles, marching, bugles and banners. All of it is an affront to the natural human joys of individuality, of compassion, of love. Most of all, militarism is grotesque because anyone who denies its personal evocativeness is lying. There is seduction in war, the quickening pace and the thudding heartbeat, the Wagnerian impulse to glory in destruction. In remembering D-Day, the awesome power concentrated off the coast of Europe, we court such emotions. Ironically in forgetting D-Day, however, we pose a far greater risk.
Authoritarianism’s most insidious reality is that sometimes you must engage the tactics of the fascist so as to defeat the fascist. Debate the ethics of punching a Nazi all you want, but don’t doubt its efficacy. No doubt there is something genuinely worrying in divinizing men like Dwight D. Eisenhower and George Patton, Bernard Montgomery and Omar Bradley. When British troops landed on those shores it was under the Union Flag’s banner, with all of its connotations of colonialism; when American soldiers disembarked on those beaches it was under the Stars and Stripes which signified segregation and Jim Crow. Best not to forget this, as Manichean symbolism can lend itself to fallacious reasoning, it can keep you dishonest. And yet, to give over to the similarly seductive call of relativism can be just as dangerous, for in admitting that the Allies were imperfect it costs us nothing to also understand that their adversaries represented complete evil. As the German philosopher Theodor Adorno would write some five years after the end of the war, “Fear and destructiveness are the major emotional sources of fascism;” say what you will of democracy’s failures, but the ideal for that system remains wholly more noble.
When I was a child, the veterans of World War II were still relatively young men, on the upper-end of middle aged. Guys who wore their slacks too high and had a penchant for plaid shirts, blue baseball caps with the names of Pacific boats and medals in closets from Normandy and Sicily, Northern Africa and Papua New Guinea. The Tom Brokaws and Steven Spielbergs of the Entertainment-Industrial Complex might give us propaganda, but the women and men who actually fought in the war gave us literature. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Martin Booth’s under-read Hiroshima Joe and John Horne Burns’ equally forgotten The Gallery.
Call of Duty might present the war as an issue of simple ass-kicking, but Mailer understood that “this is going to be the reactionary’s century, perhaps their thousand-year reign. It’s the one thing Hitler said which wasn’t completely hysterical.” Understand that for Mailer, such a reality wasn’t a submission to quit fighting, it was an invocation to fight harder. Where our movies and documentaries often flatten the reality of war, reducing it to the moral contours of a fantasy novel, our greatest writers (all of those listed here were veterans themselves) present those years in all of their ambiguity. They give us soldiers who aren’t mere ciphers for American foreign policy, bags of bone and blood who represent symbols of goodness, but rather soldiers who are people. Often good but sometimes shitty, courageous, scared, and funny people. In other words, humans.
And far from diminishing what they accomplished on June 6th, the work of those authors emphasizes the moral necessity of not placating fascism, of not pretending that dialogue, compromise, and strategic triangulation are the methods for defeating the Nazis of the world. Perhaps a cursory reading of a history will show the litany of sins committed by Americans from the moment the first pilgrim’s slipper hit New England shores, and yet for all of our grotesquerie, our barbarity, and our blood-thirstiness, there is one thing you can give the generation after the Second World War – they knew that Nazis were evil. Wish I could so easily say that my fellow Americans still understood that simple inviolate truth.
Because beyond the militarism of D-Day, beyond the sentimentality of Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, what the liberation of Europe represented and still represents was an unsparing, immoderate, and righteous confrontation against an uncomplicated evil. Don’t spare yourself from using that last word, you lose no points in critical acumen if you’re willing to concede the obvious point that fascism is wicked. No need for Manichean reductionism either, one need not be totally good to confront that which is completely evil. If anything, it underscores the necessity of such a struggle, to admit our own fallibility, our own compromises, and our own sins, and nonetheless to take up arms against the tyrant and totalitarian, the authoritarian and the autocrat. Quibble about the details all you want, students; that D-Day happened and was necessary is an inarguable truth.
Today the fascists have new names, new tricks to obscure what they are while winking at those who thrill to their reality, but who still embody an ideology which George Orwell described as “something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class.” Don’t fear at naming these new fascists, theirs is an infernal roll-call: bronzed, toothy Nigel Farage with his used car salesman shit-eating smile, and prim vampiric Marine Le Pen; diabolical vagrant Matteo Salvini and short little Viktor Orban; thick-headed Jair Bolsonaro, Bibi Netanyahu with his smarmy façade, Recep Tayyip Erdogan with his villain’s mustache, and of course the Chairman of the Fascist International, Vladimir Putin. In the United States we have a veritable murder of fascists controlling the levers of state or building up their cultural capital, ghouls like corpuscular Steven Miller, bloated Richard Spencer, the propaganda commentariat of FOX News (including meat-head Sean Hannity, preppy dweeb Tucker Carlson, and white supremacist fellow-traveler Laura Ingraham), melting theocrat Mike Pence, greasy Stephen Bannon with his delirium tremens, and of course atop that pile of shit a broke realtor and former gameshow host.
I make no apologies for using the word “fascism” to describe this current monstrous incarnation, those that push their cultish followers to hatred, who put children in cages, ban immigrants, restrict women of their bodily autonomy, encourage violence in the streets against refugees, African-Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, Jews, lesbians and gays. Nor do I have any desire to exonerate anything called “conservatism;” there is a category mistake which forgives the more genteel right of their responsibility in the current dawn of fascism. In Discourse on Colonialism the Martinique theorist and novelist Aimé Césaire wrote that when confronting fascism, the morass of moderates and cabal of centrists become “surprised, they become indignant.” Call me what you must, but don’t call me surprised.
Channeling and then critiquing the fantasies of the #Resistance crowd half-a-century ago, Césaire writes that apologists for the status quo “wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves … that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices.” By all means pursue impeachment, pursue electoral politics, but let’s not pretend that the crisis will have passed once the criminal at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave has been indicted and evicted. Trump and his minions are the product of all that is worst in American culture, he is our infernal creation, and it is our responsibility to defeat him. We’re in a fight for the long haul; it began long before 2016, and will go on long after 2020. The polite right’s traditionalism, fundamentalism, and market-veneration, not to speak of their political cynicism, all functioned in fertilizing the noxious growth of the current reactionary moment.
But it would equally be a mistake to see the Trumpists, the Brexiters, the so-called “Alt-Right” as simply being more of the same either. Something all the more diabolical blows in from the right today. In his classic The New York Review of Books essay “Ur-Fascism,” the Italian literary critic Umberto Eco wrote that such an ideology is “still around us.” Eco writes that it would be easier for us “if there appeared on the scene somebody saying ‘I want to re-open Auschwitz, I want the Blackshirts to parade again in the Italian squares.’ Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises.” But with horrifying alacrity, we realize in 2019 that life really is that simple, that the enemies of democracy, of liberalism, of socialism, are saying the sorts of things which were unthinkable in mainstream discussion when Eco wrote his essay. Look to Charlottesville, look to the hundreds of daily massacres in the United States’ simmering civil war. Now the President of the United States extols what he sees as the virtues of Neo-Nazis; now the heads of several European states ferment the sort of naked race hatred that had all but disappeared from electoral politics for decades.
There are several reasons for this sickening development. The most obvious is implied by the calendar itself – today is seventy-five years since D-Day. The veterans are centenarians; the last victims of the Holocaust will soon die. In the miasmic haze of historical amnesia, younger generations simply don’t remember what’s at stake, and so whether out of bored nihilism or nihilistic boredom gravitate towards the unsavory corners of discourse, the Incels and the alt-right, the fascists and the Nazis. Another reason is the dark-beating heart of irrationalism which always stirs a bit beneath the surface of humanity, those Dionysian chords which the materialist left is never quite so good at hearing, content to imagine that it’s only empty bellies which push people to fascism and not the hateful black heart that beats in every fallen chest.
But more than anything, it is the failures of capital that have brought us to this moment, the empty promises of the neoliberal paradigm when history was supposed to have ended, but what rather reached finality was any possible politics of meaning. Marx’s prophecy that the social and economic contradictions of capitalism would see its final demise seem at hand, spurned on primarily by the ecological calamity and climate catastrophe which beckons with apocalyptic urgency. Ask yourself, do you really believe that those captains of industry, those generals of capital so responsible for the propaganda which drowns our discourse – the Koch brothers and the Mercers, oligarchs (both Russian and American), Murdoch and Bannon – do you really think that they don’t understand that the climate catastrophe we face is real?
Do you really think that the executives at EXXON and Gazprom don’t understand that anthropogenic climate apocalypse threatens the entire environmental biosphere? Now ask yourself, why would such men be so adamant in fermenting skepticism about that reality? Could it be because the only solution to the issue is the complete rearrangement of our current economic and political system, the embrace of an ecosocialism which organizes capital along equitable and environmentally sound lines, where ecology isn’t sacrificed for the sake of the profit motive? If you were Charles and David Koch, what would you do in that case? If you were Rebekah Mercer, which writers would you fund?
Of course, there are other possibilities as well, especially if the preservation of capitalism were your central goal. As the horror of climate change is disproportionately affecting the developing world, the global south who has suffered so that American suburbanites could drive hummers and eat fruit out of season, then the anti-refugee, anti-Islamic, anti-Hispanic nature of our current moment suddenly becomes sickeningly obvious in its cynical deployment. There is no coincidence that as the memory of World War II fades we’ve seen the grotesque rebirth of nationalism and fascism, the Kochs’ and Mercers’ final solution to ecological collapse nothing less than ginning up race hatred among the Lumpenproletariat so that rather than threaten capital, we zestfully embrace the dehumanization of immigrants and refugees who are climate’s earliest victims. Like their intellectual predecessors eight decades ago, the new fascists would rather see genocide than anything which threatens capital.
Eco wrote that “Our duty is to uncover and point the finger at any of [fascism’s]… new instances – every day and in every part of the world.” Seventy-five years after D-Day, what we need to come to terms with is the fact that that event wasn’t a crescendo in the global fight against fascism, that it wasn’t the final act in the battle against Nazism – it was but a prelude. Now the ships off the coast of Normandy seem very far off, the liberation of Europe receding into history. Easy to become disenchanted, to become despondent that that which we’ve watched on film and television for the better part of a century wasn’t the conclusion but the prologue. But now, of all times, is not a moment in which we can countenance the luxury of despair, the palliative of pessimism. Time has come to stiffen our spines, to prepare for all of the unthinkable struggles which lay ahead. There is work to be done.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.