The June 6, 1944, D-day landing, quite aside from its relative weight in the defeat of Hitler (16 days after the Western Allies put five divisions on the Normandy beaches, the Soviet Union launched an operation that destroyed 30 German divisions in 30 days), was a different event from the one being portrayed in celebrations of the 50th anniversary.
For a sense of the grimness of that day, it's worth looking at S.L.A. Marshall's "The Soldier's Load," published by the Marine Corps Assn. Addressing the argument that since fear weakens a man, every extra ounce he carries will further drain him of muscular power and mental coordination, Marshall wrote:
"In the initial assault waves at Omaha Beachhead, there were companies whose men started ashore, each with four cartons of cigarettes in his pack--as though the object of operations was trading with the French. They dropped in deep holes during the wade-in, or they fell into the tide nicked by a bullet. Then they soaked up so much weight they could not rise again. They drowned . . . the greater number were cast up on the beach. It impressed the survivors unforgettably--the line of dead men along the sands, many of whom had received but trifling wounds."
Many soldiers felled with their heavy loads in the water lacked even the strength to keep ahead of the tide, which moved inland at the pace of a slow walk. Marshall concluded from his interviews with survivors that "weight and water were the cause of the greater part of our losses at the beach."
In 1984, the 40th anniversary of D-day was hijacked by Ronald Reagan's PR men as opportunity for martial posturings on the Normandy beaches by the old actor, whose closest actual contact with war was the percussion of a movie-set six-gun next to his ear (though this didn't stop him from boasting later that he had witnessed the liberation of Auschwitz). Actual veterans were regarded as mere stage props for the media blitz staged by Reagan's communications maestro, Michael Deaver.
A Pravda correspondent sourly observed at the time that the President, "having weathered the war far from the front line, in the rear, travels to the scene of the fighting, not so much to dramatize the turmoil of war as to exploit the glory of the dead."
The same words could be written about President Clinton, whose own in-house propagandists have been consulting with Deaver on how to manipulate the event to extort the maximum favorable exposure for their boss. A commander-in-chief who has been outmaneuvered by the warlords of Mogadishu and Port-au-Prince should have the modesty to keep off the Normandy beaches and stay at home.
D-day itself was a sideshow in the defeat of Adolf Hitler. The war had already been won on the Eastern front by the Russians at Stalingrad and then, a year before D-day, at the Kursk salient, where the Russians mangled 100 German divisions. Compared with these epic struggles, D-day was a skirmish. The Russians, after all, lost 20 million men in the war with Hitler.
The D-day landings had mostly to do with the postwar shape of Europe. The German general staff bore this as keenly in mind as the Western commanders. Hitler's generals knew that the war was lost and the task was to keep the meeting point of the invading Russian and Western armies as far east as possible.
It's not fashionable these days to recognize that the Soviet Union had the lion's share in defeating Nazism. At the 40th anniversary, Reagan's people even doctored Eisenhower's June 6 Order of the Day to omit reference to "our Russian allies."
Were he still alive on some Argentine hacienda, the aged Adolf would be smirking with satisfaction at the shape of the world 50 years after the Normandy landings: a dismembered Soviet Union; his wartime puppet state of Croatia promptly recognized by Germany and then by the United States, thus precipitating the whole Bosnian crisis; fascist renaissance in Italy, with President Clinton praising Italian neo-fascists on the eve of the D-day anniversary. These neo-fascists include Gianfranco Fini, who recently remarked that Mussolini was the greatest statesman of the 20th Century.
The Fuehrer must be itching to get on the phone to Chancellor Helmut Kohl to ask him how long it will be before Deutschland demands its lost Polish territories and Kaliningrad, a.k.a. Koenigsberg. "In truth," Hitler mumbles as he wraps a blanket round his skinny shanks, "I really did win the war."