Better Men Than Me
By Conor Renier Friedersdorf
The Allied landing never seemed real, like life rather than history or cinema, until I visited the Normandy American Cemetery Memorial. The grounds are a serene expanse of 9,387 graves. The monuments are austere, a simple white cross marking most plots, a Star of David marking others.
"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few," I thought, and I felt gratitude toward the men in those graves. Most died around my age, though I cannot fathom doing their battlefield deeds.
The cemetery sits atop a bluff that looks out at the English Channel. A path winds gently down to Omaha Beach, a windswept expanse as tranquil and calming as any sandy seascape, its sweep strangely reminiscent of the Southern California beaches where I grew up surfing and playing touch football.
Clouds of white and gray scrolled overhead. The sporadic sunlight let the sea appear alive with spangled spots one moment, but left it dull gray the next.
I stowed my shoes and socks by a piece of driftwood, rolled up my pant legs, waded knee deep and turned only as the remnants of the breakers lapped against my thighs. The bluff rose up before me as I'd planned: on June 6, 1944 men my age stood here, I thought, among mines laid so they'd be blown to bits.
They trudged to the shore under machine gun fire, rushing across that impossibly wide beach, as Germans fired down on them from atop that bluff.
Novels depict young men yearning for the glory of war, but I stood on my nation's most glorious battlefield unsure I'd have mustered the physical courage to step off those transports. I imagined myself braving enemy fire to drag a wounded friend away from German strafing. As easily, I imagined lurking like a coward behind the transport, pretending to be wounded until others rushed forward to take the brunt of the offensive.
On the path back to the cemetery quirks of landscape gripped my imagination. A large rock came alive as a place where men had taken cover. A narrow, brush-covered ravine seemed an ideal place for sniping at unsuspecting Germans.
Could I shoot?
Alone on the path, khaki pants soaked through with salt water, I wondered whether I'd be able to kill at close range a soldier for an army I believe to be history's most evil. I hoped I'd fire... but I couldn't be certain without my finger on the trigger, close enough to see his flaring nostrils and his fearful human eyes.
Atop the bluff American flags stretched taut in the breeze. A young man of about 18 knelt by a graveside, and I reflected on the fact that these days young men between his age and mine are again fighting and dying.
Even now, I can't quite fathom that reality, though I'd recommend to anyone a visit to that cemetery. Its clarifying effects linger on, so that I am better able to appreciate the courage of our troops, more grateful for their heroism and conscious that I am wholly unable to justify the gulf between their sacrifice and mine.
Conor Friedersdorf is a 27 year old journalist. This essay has been adapted from A Backpack and a Small Rolling Suitcase, a travel memoir he is shopping for publication.