President's D-day speech should tell truth about war

June 01, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- Next week, Bill Clinton will give one of the most difficult speeches of his life: He will be in Normandy to commemorate the 50th anniversary of D-Day.

He faces two problems with the speech: It is bound to be compared to the moving ones that Ronald Reagan gave at Normandy 10 years ago, and it also will remind people that Clinton avoided military service 25 years ago during the Vietnam War.

It was during the New Hampshire primary of 1992 that Clinton was forced to explain just where he stood on Vietnam.

At a news conference held outdoors in sub-freezing temperatures to discourage many questions, Clinton said: "I was opposed to the Vietnam War. I still believe that the policy was wrong-headed and lot of people died for no good end and [the policy] was mistaken."

If America held this against Clinton, it elected him anyway.

Ronald Reagan was fonder of the glories of war, especially since he never had to participate in them.

While some movie stars saw combat, Reagan fought World War II from a Hollywood sound stage. And, as the years passed, he remembered the war from the movies he had made and seen.

So when he made two speeches at Normandy in 1984, he used phrases like "impossible valor" and "unsurpassed courage." He spoke of the "champions who helped free a continent" and the "heroes who helped end a war."

And all of that was true. But it was only part of the story.

Bill Clinton has no personal memories of World War II. He was born a year after it ended. But last week he called a group of prominent military historians to the White House to brief him.

One of them was Paul Fussell, who said of Clinton afterward: "I was struck by his modesty, honesty and simplicity. He knows nothing about the war, and he knows he ought to know what was happening in Normandy. He kept saying, 'God, I'm learning a lot.' "

I hope Bill Clinton did learn a lot from Fussell, because Fussell is one of America's most extraordinary historians. He does not study just battles, but war movies and songs, letters, diaries, books, and even graffiti.

The main theme of his book "Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War" is: "For the past fifty years the Allied war has been sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant and the bloodthirsty."

War corrupts, Fussell argues, and one of its most powerful corruptions is how it renders us unable to tell the truth about it, even years later.

How many war movies have you seen? How many books have you read? How many interviews with veterans have you watched on TV?

Yet, how many times have you heard about this:

"Over one-quarter of the soldiers in one division [in World War II] admitted that they'd been so scared they vomited and almost a quarter said that at terrifying moments they'd lost control of their bowels," Fussell writes. "Ten percent had urinated in their pants."

Nor do we ever hear: "If you asked a wounded soldier or Marine what hit him, you'd hardly be ready for the answer, 'My buddy's head,' or his sergeant's heel or his hand, or a Japanese leg. . . ."

Fussell documents the reality of battle sites: Not wind-swept beaches covered with intact bodies, but beaches covered with severed arms and legs and heaps of human entrails.

But they don't show that in "The Longest Day," do they?

Nor does the following make most of the D-Day accounts I have been reading recently: ". . . in order to invade the continent, the Allies killed 12,000 innocent French and Belgian civilians who happened to live in the wrong part of town, that is, too near the railway tracks."

I do not demean the Allied cause in World War II, nor the men and women who fought it. They fought predatory fascism. They fought a "good" war. They have a right to be proud, and we have a right to be proud of them.

But they also fought a monstrous war, a war that was not about valor or glory but about madness and waste and stink. A war that is what all wars are about: agony.

And if Bill Clinton has the courage and wisdom to include some of that in his D-Day speech, he will not only have learned something about war, but he also will have taught something.

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