We are drawn to Normandy

June 06, 1994|By Mona Charen

THE men of Normandy," said Ronald Reagan in 1984, speaking at Pointe du Hoc on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, "had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead -- or the next. . . . They knew that some things are worth dying for, that one's country is worth dying for and that democracy is worth dying for . . ."

It was a terribly moving moment -- Mr. Reagan's dignity and presence combined perfectly with Peggy Noonan's words to dramatize the meaning of the day.

The 50th anniversary that we commemorate this week is different. It is a bigger story, for one thing. At every turn, newspapers, magazines, television and radio are marking the anniversary with the kind of full court press that only major news stories are accorded. The 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, by contrast, was dispatched with a few words and a few wreaths.

Today, thanks to the press attention -- and it has been wonderful coverage for the most part -- our minds and imaginations are filled with images of paratroopers hanging from trees in St. Mere Eglise, the first town in occupied France to be freed; of U.S. Rangers scaling the rocks of Pointe du Hoc; and French innkeepers digging up the buried champagne in their backyards to share with their liberators. It has reminded us of heroes -- General Eisenhower, General Montgomery ("Magnificent in defeat, insufferable in victory," said Churchill) and the thousands of ordinary soldiers who hurled themselves on the beaches and paid the ultimate price.

This celebration of a great day for America and for free nations everywhere is right and proper. But my suspicion is that the wall-to-wall coverage reflects an unease about our modern predicament as well.

War in general, and World War II in particular, has a way of clarifying and intensifying life. War is horrible and primitive and ghastly. But it can also bring out the best in people. The epic nature of the struggle against Nazism and Imperial Japan elicited the heroic possibilities in men who might otherwise have lived and died unrecognized. Without the war, Churchill would have been remembered only as a colorful and witty politician, and only in his own country. Douglas MacArthur would have enjoyed a fine, if quiet, military career. Raoul Wallenberg, the Swede who saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis and died in the Soviet Gulag, would have remained in his family's banking business.

World War II also gave to those who lived through it (on the winning side) a bracing feeling of righteousness. We Americans were not in doubt about our course, nor about the justice of our cause.

But today, America is led, in world affairs, by a president who cannot make time to see his national security adviser on a regular basis. He vows to withhold trading privileges from the Chinese and then reverses himself, a demonstration, explains his U.N. ambassador, of "resolve." On Tuesdays and Fridays, he seems prepared to invade Haiti. On Mondays and Thursdays, the president threatens North Korea. On Wednesdays, the administration says, "Just kidding." Only last week, the vice president warned the North Koreans that we find their nuclear weapons program unacceptable but then hastened to add that we're not "sabre rattling." He needn't worry about the disclaimer. This administration speaks loudly (and contradictorily) and carries a plastic sabre.

It is not just that the administration seems weak and ineffective in foreign affairs -- we may look foolish, but we are not, thank God, currently facing mortal enemies. It is the lack of dignity and stature Mr. Clinton brings to the presidency. Will he talk about his underwear at Normandy?

It isn't all President Clinton's fault either. We live in quiet times. Quiet times have their own challenges. It is harder to find the right course in the absence of clear heroes and villains. It is harder to find meaning in our national life. When President Reagan spoke 10 years ago, the Cold War still raged. The threat kept our spines stiff. Today, we are safer but less focused.

And so we look back on a day of heroes and certainties, and revel in it.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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