At the American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer

Yesterday Philippe and I drove from Paris to the D-Day beaches in Normandy, with our sons. My oldest, Matthew, who is 13, watched “Saving Private Ryan” the night before, and loved it. We arrived first in Arromanches, the town on Gold Beach off the coast of which the Allies set up an artificial harbor that was utterly critical to the success of the Normandy invasion. I had no idea. The engineering it took to create this thing is heart-stopping to contemplate. We parked the car and watched the younger boys — Leon, 10, and Lucas, 8 — scamper through the village playing soldier, so innocently. Being children, all they can imagine is the glorious adventure of being soldiers.

After lunch and a visit to the Arromanches museum, we drove down the coast towards the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. Motoring slowly through these Norman coastal villages, I marveled at how much survived the bombardment, especially among the churches. Of course I can’t be certain how much is the result of restoration, but there appears to be many buildings that were built centuries ago that remain intact. The most striking thing is the quiet and peace of these tiny villages, and their surrounding fields, and the powder-blue waters of the English Channel, swaddling the slaughter beaches like baby blankets. How could a place so gentle and embracing have been the site of so much carnage?

We did not realize that the American Cemetery closed so early, so we arrived only in time for a quick visit with the boys. We all but ran from our car to the cemetery itself. Even if you have seen, in “Saving Private Ryan” or in some other film, images of the field of white crosses and stars of David, marking the graves of the nearly 10,000 Americans who died in the Normandy invasion, but whose remains were not repatriated — well, nothing prepares you for it.

We had so little time, so I took the boys on a quick walk down a row of graves. We found one of a Louisiana man who died in Normandy: Francis J. McCormick.

“Look, fellows, this soldier was from Louisiana,” I said. And no sooner had I gotten that out than Lucas rushed to the marker, and inserted an American flag he had with him into the ground. It was entirely spontaneous; I had given him that flag to help him feel proud of his country and what his countrymen had given to free France. He decided to leave it for Sgt. McCormick. I just had time to photograph it; I’ve obscured his profile above to protect his privacy (again, we feel strongly about not publishing photos of our kids on the Internet). His gesture moved me deeply.

Matthew, who is far more reserved in his emotions, walked alone through the graves, a short distance from the rest of us. When I looked at him, his face was a grim mask. He was plainly struggling with deep emotions, and trying not to cry.

“What do you think?” I said.

“War. It’s not good,” he stammered. “I don’t know what to say. I’m going to have to think about this.” And then he screwed his grimace down even tighter, and turned away so he wouldn’t have to look at me.

We left the cemetery only a minute before the gates closed. On the long drive back to Paris through the dark and the rain, the kids sat in the back seats watching movies and playing iPod games, and Philippe and I talked. Earlier, on the drive to Normandy, he told me how important it was that the European Union succeeded, because so much depends on keeping Europe stable. “We have seen so much war,” he said. “This has to endure. Every other choice is worse. We know this from our history.”

I told him that the day before, I had been at Museum of the Army, at the Invalides — an impressive museum, to say the least, but one that left me feeling sad — bereft, even. The tools and vestments of warfare on display are beautiful, and even poignant. For example, there’s a coat that soldiers of Napoleon’s army wore on campaign in Russia, during the savage winter of La Grande Armee’s retreat. It was made only of felt — a few layers of felt, against the Russian winter! No wonder the French lost 90 percent of their men! To see that thin coat, and to imagine the man it belonged to, freezing beneath it, was to understand something important about that event. And just around the corner from that exhibit hangs this portrait of Napoleon as Emperor:

Just look at him. To think of the suffering and death that man brought to European peoples, and to the people of his own nation, to satisfy that monstrous ego! I stood before this image and thought, “God bless Nelson, and God bless Wellington .”

By the time we made it to the end of the World Wars I and II exhibit, I understood why an American friend recently left her tour of the museum feeling stained, and went to a church to pray. It was close to overwhelming to be confronted with all the ways humankind’s creativity has gone into figuring out more efficient ways to slaughter others, and, seeing the elaborate and frankly beautiful uniforms soldiers have worn over the centuries, how much effort went into glorifying war and warriors. Understand: it wasn’t the French Army that wearied me, but the exhibits casting light on man’s inhumanity to man. The only redeeming thing about it was an extraordinary exhibit on Gen. de Gaulle.

Anyway, in the car on the way to Normandy, my French friend Philippe said it is so hard to keep one’s mind focused on history, and what European nationalism and militarism has done to its people. “People forget that Europeans have been at war with each other forever,” he said, wearily.

I told him that as an American, I have a general aversion to the EU, simply because I hate the thought of the Brussels-based Eurocracy flattening the distinctions among the peoples of Europe. But then again, I said, it’s easy for me to say this; I haven’t had to live with the historical consequences of European nationalist wars. Is it possible to love one’s own culture without hating the culture of others? In theory, it should be; in practice, this seems like an impossibly thin line to walk.

At the US cemetery, I saw all that remains of nearly 10,000 American servicemen who suffered the ultimate consequences of European nationalism. Philippe said he had never been to this cemetery, and was so glad to have come. Visibly shaken by the acres of white crosses, my friend told me how grateful he was that these Americans had died to make his country free. He said he wondered if we had it in us today to make that kind of sacrifice for freedom.

As we stood there looking out over the field of crosses, I told my sons, “All of those men were once boys like you. They never imagined that they would end up here, so far from home.”

As we hurried back to our car to leave before the park closed, I said to Philippe, “I pray that our boys never end up in a place like this.” He nodded in agreement. Neither of us doubt in the slightest that the war was necessary — Hitler had to be repudiated — but still, the agony and the waste of war is agonizing to confront. But necessary.

On the long drive back to Paris, I thought about the French mystic and philosopher Simone Weil’s short essay on war and “The Iliad,” which you can read in PDF form here. Weil wrote it in 1940, after her country had been conquered by the Nazis. It is basically an argument for pacifism. After publication, Weil changed her mind about pacifism, and publicly admitted how wrong she had been. The evil of Hitlerism and the deeds of the German military convinced her that force was sometimes necessary to defend the right.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that she got it basically right, at least in this passage from the essay, after she announces that “The Iliad” is a poem exploring how force in all its forms dehumanizes. Weil writes:

To define force — it is that x that turns anybody subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him. Somebody was here, and in the next minute, there is nobody here at all; this is a spectacle that the Iliad never wearies of showing us:

…the horses
Rattled the empty chariots through the files of battle,
Longing for their noble drivers. But they on the ground
Lay, dearer to the vultures than their wives.

The hero becomes a thing, dragged behind a chariot in the dust:

All around, his black hair
Was spread; in the dust his whole head lay,
That once-charming head; now Zeus had let his enemies
Defile it on his native soil.

The bitterness of such a spectacle is offered us absolutely undiluted. No comforting fiction intervenes; no consoling prospect of immortality; and on the hero’s head, no washed-out halo of patriotism descends.

His soul, fleeing his limbs, passed to Hades,
Mourning its fate, forsaking its youth and vigor.

It does not demean in any way the sacrifice of those brave men, nor take away from the justice of their cause (which was our cause), to observe that war is hateful above almost all things. Almost. In any case, there is no glory in it, and I understand, I think, why even the greatest American heroes of World War II did not want to talk about what they had seen and done. How do you return from hell and convey the enormity of what you have witnessed?

The idea that any nation would go to war for other than reasons of utmost necessity is disgusting, and must be resisted at every opportunity. Our tragedy is that we always think that our wars are wars of necessity.

UPDATE: Oh my. Look at these “ghost photos” from the invasion. Stunning. Eerie. (Thanks to Amy Welborn for sending the link.)