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D-Day reflections, both inspired and unsettled

• Jun 5, 2019 at 2:00 PM

Tomorrow, June 6, is the 75th anniversary of D-Day — the largest seaborne invasion in history when Allied forces landed on the beach of Normandy during World War II. Together with British and Canadian troops, the invasion covered 50 miles of the French shoreline.

This operation was the beginning of the liberation of France from the control of the Nazi regime, and is generally seen when the tide of the war turned toward the eventual Allied victory on the Western Front.

The leaders of the Allied forces knew that the invasion would come at tremendous cost of human life. As the American troops prepared, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower told them, “The eyes of the world are upon you. You will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny.”

By the end of the day, 2,501 American soldiers had been killed in action. It is estimated that 4,414 in total died that day.

As the sun went down on June 6, it was not clear that victory was coming. The Allied forces had not achieved any of their primary goals. The beach landings had been tremendously deadly, with ramps dropping men into chest-deep water in places, resulting in their drowning when the weight of their equipment carried them down. Many of those who did make it off the ramps were quickly killed by German forces. It wasn’t until June 12 that the five beachheads were finally connected, and the Allies secured the front.

I remember watching accounts of this invasion in the film “Saving Private Ryan,” when I was a student at Grand Haven High School. It was the first time I had seen a war movie that truly sought to capture the carnage and horror of battle. Later, I watched the 2001 miniseries “Band of Brothers,” and was likewise struck by the massive loss of life on that day, the tremendous courage of young men climbing into cold water and heading in the direction of machine-gun fire, knowing their sacrifice was essential to victory over the Nazi regime.

Like many in my generation who grew up in an age after the draft, in a time where there was no massive conflict on the scale of the world wars which called so many to battle, I didn’t serve in the armed forces. My focus in my younger years was on studying to serve in ministry in the church. But I’ve always felt a twinge of guilt over the sense that I did not do my part like some of my friends and my peers who serve.

As I studied theology and Scripture throughout undergraduate and graduate school, my own views on war shifted and developed. In my upbringing, war was a necessary part of our world — something essential to defend the innocent against the violent and aggressor nations. I remember arguing with some theology professors when our country was preparing for the second Iraq war in 2003. They articulated the perspective of Christian non-violence, but I could not understand how that view squared with the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Throughout the prophetic literature, those who stand idly by while the innocent are oppressed and killed are condemned for a lack of faithfulness. How could we, as a country, stand by while atrocities were happening in Iraq?

Of course, as the conflict in Iraq persisted into one of the longest-running conflicts in our nation’s history, I began to question my initial views. Particularly as civilian deaths continued to rise, my Christianity begin poking at my conscience, wondering if we truly were protecting the innocent — or complicit in killing them. As of right now, it is estimated by the Iraq Body Count Project that nearly 200,000 civilians have died in that war — but that organization’s methodology is often criticized by scholars for likely underestimating.

For a time, I moved to the viewpoint of Christian non-violence, particularly as I was convinced by the arguments of scholars like John Howard Yoder, Will Willimon and Stanley Hauwerwas. But I never fully was convinced of this position because it seemed only tenable when Christianity is a small minority within the State. In my first years of priestly ministry, I served in the Washington, D.C., area at Historic Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia. I became friends with parishioners who served in the Pentagon. My overly academic views on war and violence began to clash with my experience of faithful Christians doing their best to protect their country.

When I’m honest, I’m not sure where I stand on all these questions now. However, as I look back on the carnage of D-Day, I cannot help but be inspired by these young men, many of whom were certainly motivated by Jesus’ words in John 15:13, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” I do believe that our world would be a darker and scarier place were the advance of fascism through the Axis powers not stopped — and I doubt anything other than violent resistance could have stopped that kind of power.

But I remain unsettled. I remain unsettled because, though there will be several commemorations and memorials of this 75th anniversary tomorrow, there remains massively insufficient passion when it comes to the question of caring for veterans in our country. The most recent “point in time” count found there were nearly 40,000 veterans who are homeless. Nearly one-third of all veterans who served since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 have at least one service-connected disability. Our care for those who have served is woefully inadequate — and it is a problem that has plagued our country since the Revolution.

And I am unsettled because it seems those in power are willing to send our brave young women and men to die for causes that are questionable —even from the perspective of a Christian just war theorist. There is a carelessness to civilian casualties that should feel obscene to any human — let alone any Christian. And this is not a partisan issue — both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have an ugly track record with the use of military force. In recent times, the attacks upon brave LGBT Americans who put their lives on the line to defend our country have been particularly heinous.

Mostly, though, I am unsettled because 75 years after D-Day, fascist ideologies are once again on the rise throughout the world and right in our own country. Racial violence from white supremacists has seen a disturbing increase. Alarmingly large percentages of people seem to be adopting clearly neo-fascist views on questions like ultra-nationalism, xenophobia and opposition to immigration. An insistence upon supporting the State — no matter what — is increasingly the marker for those in power.

So, I honor those brave men who climbed onto the beaches of Normandy for the cause of freedom, hoping their certain sacrifices could overcome the evil that threatened to envelop Europe and the world. But I think we must also be alert — because there are always forces willing to use the story of veterans to advance interests that are contrary to the foundations of our county. And we must be willing, like those soldiers 75 years ago, to stand up and resist the totalitarian and fascist tendencies in our own world right now, even in our own country.

About the writer: The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at www.sjegh.com.

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