Seventy-five years after it happened, we still take time to remember what happened on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. D-Day is not the only battle commemorated, but it is the most widespread. I believe there are many reasons for this, and we all could think of a few. Perhaps it reminds us of a time when it was clear what we should be doing. Perhaps we see it as saving civilization. Maybe it recalls that different nations truly rely on each other.
It is impossible for me to imagine how dark the world looked leading up to the beach landings. In August 1942, from the English Channel to the Black Sea and from Norway to the Islands of Greece, more than 400,000,000 people were under Nazi rule. North Africa was nearly lost and Japan was threatening India, leading to the possibility of Germany, Italy and Japan meeting in the Middle East.
There were Canadians stationed in the U.K. for the island's defense, and they were discouraged because of the lack of engagement. Out of this situation a plan was made to attempt to grab the port of Dieppe. This raid, codenamed "Jubilee," after some initial success, was an unmitigated disaster. One Canadian regiment reported nearly 95% casualties. There were also 50 U.S. Rangers, and one of them, 19-year-old Lt. Edwin Loustalot, was the first U.S. soldier of the war to be killed on European soil.
The lessons learned from this failed raid and the assumptions made by Hitler after it made the planning of "Overlord" more effective. What resulted was better training and better equipment based on analysis of the wounds suffered. Lord Mountbatten is reported as saying, "For every soldier who died at Dieppe, 10 were saved on D-Day."
The two World Wars in the first half of the 20th century changed social structure and Christianity in significant ways. There were those who lost their faith in the war and there were some who found it. The "old order" in Europe crumbled and nationalism took it on the chin. War and faith, at least in the West, were profoundly changed. The relationships between secularism, Christianity (Eastern and Western varieties), Judaism and Islam were shuffled around, and we are still dealing with those changes today.
War and faith have always been linked in uncomfortable ways. WWII is sometimes described as a "just war." I know that in my own faith tradition WWII was a watershed, as we moved from a pacifist or neutral stance to militant in a matter of a few short years. I had professors whose fathers spent time in prison for refusing to serve, which is nearly unimaginable now.
Whatever one's stance is on war, there is no changing the respect that courage and sense of duty earns for those who step into the fire for the sake of a purpose and for the sake of others. I am one that believes that there is too much war and talk of war in the world today, there are too many that are put in harm's way and too many who die. But what I will never say or believe is that they do so in vain. It can sometimes be a difficult line to hold, but it is one that I grasp firmly.
Some might have said that "Jubilee" was ill-planned and maybe even poorly executed. Some might call it a failure. But none of those who died that day did so in vain. And I would say that is true of any soldier, anywhere -- enemies included. Every life has something to teach us -- there may be an evil cause or a vain cause -- but there are no vain lives in this context.
It calls to my mind Jesus' reminder that those who are in the kingdom of God are to pray for their enemies. It is an encouragement to all of us to follow Paul's advice in Romans, "as long as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone."
I have truly appreciated the interviews that I have seen and heard over the past week. There are two things that stick out in my mind hearing these 90-year-old men speak. To a person they claim that they are not the heroes, but rather it is those who for the past 75 years have been under a white cross -- an appropriate marker.
The other is something I heard on a radio interview (NPR, I believe). The soldier was recalling his friends who died on that day and he, still alive after 75 years said, that when he dies, "I'll have to give an account for my life." He meant more than just to God. He meant also to those who died on the beach.
This is powerful. For every D-Day there is a Jubilee. For every life sacrificed there are others saved. For every difficulty of one generation there is a benefit to the next. Hebrews tells us that "we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses." One day, I must give account for the life I have been gifted.
Sean Niestrath lives and ministers in Madisonville. You may contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.