This week marked the 74th anniversary of D-Day, when Allied forces launched their all-out assault to break the Nazi stranglehold on the European mainland.
The attack began on June 6, 1944 on the shores of northwest France. Over the next several days ten thousand allied troops would lose their lives.
Ultimately, the assault launched on D-Day succeeded in breaking through Nazi battle lines. It was the beginning of the end for the Third Reich, although it was another eleven months before Germany finally surrendered.
You can go to where the assault took place along the beaches of the Normandy coast. Omaha Beach is the most famous, but its neighbors are no less important; Juno Beach, Gold Beach, Utah Beach and Sword Beach.
As mentioned once in a previous column, last summer my wife and I visited the Normandy American Cemetery on the cliffs overlooking Omaha Beach, where the remains of 9,387 Americans are interred.
We visited in the late afternoon. There were a few hundred tourists visiting the 700 acre site that day.
At exactly 5 p.m. a military honor guard marched solemnly to the large flagpole that dominates the rolling fields covered with white gravestones. To the sound of Taps, and the waves breaking gently on the shoreline at the foot of the cliffs, the flag was lowered, folded with precision, saluted by the guard, and retired. During the ceremony all those on the field stood in absolute, profound, reverential silence. I consider it one of the highlights of my life.
We care deeply about the pieces of red, white and blue fabric that make up our flag. That’s because if what it means to us, or, more precisely, because of the meanings we, as a people, assign to it.
The flag is a symbol of what Ronald Reagan described in 1964 as “the last, best hope on Earth.”
The flag means different things to different people, and it seems to me that no one has the right to tell others that the meanings they ascribe to it are wrong, false, or incorrect.
The flag flew as a demonstration of our military power in the dawn’s early light after the withering but failed British attack on Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.
The flag was carried to awake the conscience of a nation by Dr. Martin Luther King and his followers who braved water cannons and police dogs during their March 1964 walk under the Alabama sun from Selma to Montgomery to claim the American right to vote without illegal obstructions.
The flag has always served as a beacon to the immigrants who answered Lady Liberty’s call to “give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores.”
The flag has even served as a sign of protest against the nation over which it flies. Anti-war activist and provocateur Abbie Hoffman was the first to wear a shirt designed to look like the American flag when summoned in 1968 to speak to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Upon arrival he was arrested and charged with “desecrating the flag.” Today such an action would be laughable, in a nation where the stars and stripes regularly decorate shirts, shoes and undergarments. (Google ‘American flag underwear’ and see what happens.)
The flag belongs to us all, and we are all different. It represents American power. It consecrates the sacrifice of America’s fallen. It symbolizes our rights as American citizens, and sometimes serves as a necessary reminder that not all of those to whom those rights belong are able to enjoy them in peace.
The flag is a reminder, sometimes subtle, sometimes stubborn, of what it means to be the “last, best hope” of mankind, even when the rest of the world, and sometimes even some of us, lose temporary track of what that can and should mean.
On D-Day, thousand of US soldiers died to preserve the flag, with its potent promise of liberty and justice for all. And since that day each generation has fought in its own way, at home and abroad, to realize the dream so simple in concept, and yet so difficult to achieve.