(9/11/11: third in a series)
The Landing at Normandy
When, after a brief return to Paris, I arrived in Normandy – a couple of days after leaving Julia behind in Provence – it was with the expressed purpose of making a first visit to the landing beaches, and to some of the countless fields where allied soldiers had inched their way among the hedge rows in the night. That had been my plan before 9/11. Now it meant even more to me. What struck me, even as the experience moved me, was how incommunicable it could be. Many, of course, have felt and do feel the same as I about that historical moment. Others – not quite so powerfully. For some, it is an idea, with various permutations, and not much of a feeling at all. Even after 9/11, there could be no reliable agreement about any meaning the great invasion might hold for the present or the future. If lessons are to be drawn from history, can there be any greater than those of the Second World War? Yet only sixty years later, there are good people, well-meaning people, who feel the parallels have been drawn too often and too illegitimately. They are even, perhaps, just a little tired of hearing them. Ah, yes, there are lessons to be learned, but first we have to agree upon what they are, and when to apply them, and who should presume to teach, requiring whom to learn.
As I made the two and a half hour drive from Paris to Normandy, the closer I approached, the more I imagined an historical progress in the other direction. In childhood, I had studied with fascination, in books and school and in popular movies more or less simplistically patriotic, an event I soon came to understand as epic in proportion and which had occurred in all its horror and tragic grandeur in the years not long before my birth, almost a creation myth for the world in which I lived. It is not a myth, however. The extraordinary human stories behind the liberating invasion that was the European theater’s terrible and heroic crescendo were real – are real for those who choose to do honor through memory. But memory fades, or calcifies; it is as human to turn the gaze from where it is directed as it is to let it rest there, and some prefer the subjunctive to the celebratory mood. So the lessons of felt experience become the less gripping instruction of the explained idea, and some – even those who bore the brunt of its destruction – believe they learn from the Second World War that calamity comes from the rush of free nations to war, instead of the reluctance of good people to join it. Of course, one must believe in those people’s goodness, and in the value of liberty, whatever its failings.
I drove the country roads, got lost in the little seaside hamlets, and made my way to Pointe du Hoc. I walked among the decades old bomb craters and stood near the cliff. I looked down at the rocks and the surf, and as a man who has never been to war, I tried to imagine the unimaginable. When, later, I arrived at the western end of Omaha Beach, where the monument stands to the National Guardsmen who died in such great numbers, I walked down to the water’s edge. There are homes along the road that runs beside the beach, but not many. Unlike Pointe du Hoc, there are no bunkers or trenches remaining to remind the unwitting that the sand had ever seen more than angry waves, or that the cliffs above had ever offered to those below more than a dramatic view. I scanned the waterline and tried to conjure the landing craft, the soldiers spilling into the water. I turned and faced the cliffs.
Up off the beach, at that western end, on a little rise at the end of the road that takes you down, there was, of all things, a snack bar. Imagine. I sat on an empty patio in the grey autumn and ate an onion tart. I felt both profane and proper.
The Landing of the Normans
The next morning, I went to see the Bayeux Tapestry, preserved in glass in the cathedral of that town, which was the first liberated after the allied landing. Over a length of 230 feet of coarse linen, twenty inches high, the tapestry tells the story in embroidered tableaux of another great invasion, one that crossed the channel in the other direction, in 1066. The long, traditional belief was that the tapestry had been woven by the handmaidens of Queen Matilda, William the Conqueror’s wife. It is now commonly thought, instead, to have been commissioned by Odon de Conteville, William’s half brother and Bishop of Bayeux. The style of the handicraft has also led scholars to conclude that the tapestry was woven, not by Normans, but by Anglo-Saxon embroiderers. So not only is the tapestry a dramatic and notable instance of the victors writing history, but also of the vanquished having been cruelly compelled to play the victor’s scribes. And though, of course, motivations are always murky, though two panels may be missing from the tapestry, and independent, written chronicles of the conquest don’t always agree, though the tapestry shows William leading Harold on a campaign through Brittany before Harold pledged his fealty, while other sources place the events in reverse, though some say Edward engaged in his own, deathbed reversal, and bequeathed his crown to Harold in place of William – though all of this be so – in this the tapestry remains uncontradicted: that Edward did send Harold across the channel to William to tell him the crown would be his, that Harold did, indeed, swear an oath to William, and that he betrayed it.