Monday, June 08, 2009

Obama's stirring words to D-Day veterans ("You could have hid in the hedgerows or waited behind the seawall") come with… (faint) apology for WWII!

I am happy to say that I attended the 65th commemoration of the D-Day landings at Omaha Beach.

Of the four speeches made at the American cemetery near Colleville-sur-Mer in Normandy on June 6, 2009, the speech by Nicolas Sarkozy was by far the most moving (I do not remember hearing any French president lay out the facts of the war and of the nations involved as well as of the landings so precisely before) — I defy anybody to listen to it without tearing up. (Well, at least the first part commemorating the 1940s, which was outstanding and second to none; the second and final part, devoted to today's world, goes on to celebrate the UN, to take on this generation's greatest challenge — global warming — and to seemingly take potshots at the Bush doctrine.)
A quoi pensaient-ils ces jeunes soldats le regard fixé sur la mince bande noire de la côte qui émergeait peu à peu de la brume ?

A leur vie si courte ? Aux baisers que leurs mères déposaient tendrement sur leur front quand ils étaient enfants ? Aux larmes retenues de leurs pères quand ils étaient partis ? A celles qui les attendaient de l’autre côté de la mer ?

A quoi pensaient-ils ces jeunes soldats dont le destin avait mis entre les mains le sort de tant de peuples, sinon qu’à 20 ans il est bien tôt pour mourir ?

Leur silence était comme une prière.
By all means, see the whole discours (at least the part directly devoted to la Seconde Guerre Mondiale).

The best speech was by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who switched back and forth between French to English and who seemed to be giving a reply to today's pacifists. At Juno, he said:
Never dismiss these things [freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law] as mere abstractions. They are the very foundation upon which our lives of peace and prosperity are built. They are the very lives to which all of our fellow human beings aspire. And it is only when these values are in peril, when we have to defend them, that we can truly understand their worth. As our soldiers did here on these beaches 65 years ago.
The speech by Gordon Brown was also rather good (the most notable part of it being malheureusement when Omaha Beach was rechristened (03:55) Obama Beach — you can't hear it in the video (see below, at 0:20), but it was the whispers that started throughout the audience that got the British Prime Minister to realize his mistake.)
So intense was the allied cooperation that when Winston Churchill regularly asked to see strategists planning D-Day he never knew until he arrived at 10 Downing Street whether the officer would be British, Canadian, or American.
The worst speech, I can confirm without undue partisanship, was by the Apologizer-in-Chief, who was flying in from Dresden (where, the Germans tell us — or, rather, where they tell themselves [as it is not something they want publicized abroad] — that Obama did not disappoint).

Echoing Dresden (very faintly), Obama did not seem to apologize for the Allies' strategy and actions in World War II in Normandy, offhand — except that: he found it necessary to mention that the "nations that joined together to defeat Hitler's Reich were not perfect" and that they "had made their share of mistakes". Obama went on to speak of "a battle of competing interests" and "a competing vision of humanity" as well as the "sheer improbability of this victory" and so on, while seemingly (haughtily?) denying anybody the right to call the conflict the "good" war. But the bottom line is that — yes — Obama did manage to apologize — however faintly — to the Germans for the actions of the WWII Allies.

Always putting himself in the middle of things, moreover, he had to mention every single family member who (somehow or other) was involved in the war: there was his "grandfather, Stanley Dunham, who arrived on this beach" (six weeks after D-Day), there was his "great uncle" (who "was part of the first American division to reach and liberate a Nazi concentration camp"), there was his "grand-mother" (who "did her part as an inspector" in Kansas), etc…

This may not seem like a big deal, although notice that none of the other speakers spoke of the parts any of their family members played during the war. Also, if this was a one-time deal it would indeed seem harmless, but the point is that Obama always — in all of his speeches — seems to have to put himself at the center of attention.

Worse was to come: America's most outstanding orator™, the inspirer of hope© and the bringer of change©, went on to address the veterans (does the commander-in-chief have no knowledge of military affairs, of the military way of life, of honor and brotherhood?! does he have no empathy with military men, retired or otherwise?!) saying that — wouldn't you know it? — they could have behaved dishonorably (although that is probably not a word someone like Barack "It's always been up to us" Obama would use…)
You could have done what Hitler believed you would do when you arrived here. In the face of a merciless assault from these cliffs, you could have idled the boats offshore. Amid a barrage of tracer bullets that lit the night sky, you could have stayed in those planes. You could have hid in the hedgerows or waited behind the seawall. You could have done only what was necessary to ensure your own survival. But that's not what you did. That's not the story you told on D-Day.
So, as we see — of course — the orator extraordinaire goes on to conclude (08:45) that — of course — the "veterans of the landing" did not behave dishonorably. Au contraire. But still — even if you don't take offense over language used like this at a ceremony for the dead at a military cemetery and even if you don't find fault with oratory that is less than compelling — you should take notice that the (surprizing?) fact that the troops did not behave dishonorably somehow, seems, for this child of the pacifist 1960s, to be the main reason "why we still remember what happened on D-Day."

Compare Obama's talk with Stephen Harper's (previous) speech, in which the Canadian PM not only spoke of the "iron will of those troops, the careful planning of their commanders, and the unwavering support of their fellow citizens back home" (as well as Europe's other dicatorship, "the tyranny of communism"), but also (nudge, nudge) of the "triumph of good over evil":
The Allied troops from our four great nations who crossed the Channel to launch the liberation of Europe and rescue civilization from the darkness of fascism had no uncertainty about their purpose or duty. In the words of Captain Jack Fawcett of the First Canadian Scottish battalion, Scottish regiment, “We were so intent of getting to the beach that even if the engines had stopped or broken down, sheer willpower would have driven the craft ashore.”
Eschewing references to global warming (as he passed to the present day), Stephen Harper went on to remind us to
think of the courageous men and women of our enduring alliance who serve shoulder to shoulder in Afghanistan to bring light and hope to a people who have long known only darkness and despair. And we remember that our peace and prosperity have come not only with a price but also with an obligation to do what we can to share our good fortune with others, including those elsewhere who to this day endure violence, oppression and privation.

So let us resolve today, on behalf of our honoured veterans, on behalf of those young people so full of hope for a safer, better world, on behalf of the heroic souls who came to liberate these shores to never forget, to never surrender, to never waver in our determination to defend freedom, to advance democracy, and to seek justice for all people.
Compare Obama's talk also with Ronald Reagan's 1984 oration at the Pointe du Hoc (starting at 05:05, merci à Stu):
You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief. It was loyalty and love.

The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead, or on the next. It was the deep knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.

You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One's country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it's the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you.

…Something else helped the men of D-day; their rock-hard belief that Providence would have a great hand in the events that would unfold here; that God was an ally in this great cause. And so, the night before the invasion, when Colonel Wolverton asked his parachute troops to kneel with him in prayer, he told them: "Do not bow your heads, but look up so you can see God and ask His blessing in what we're about to do."

…Today, as forty years ago, our armies are here for only one purpose: to protect and defend democracy. The only territories we hold are memorials like this one and graveyards where our heroes rest.
But the bottom line, of course, is that — beyond the fact that their orations were more stirring than the One's — neither Harper nor (25 years earlier) Reagan (nor Brown nor Sarkozy) managed to apologize (however faintly) for the actions of those who, during World War II, fought against the Nazi juggernaut.

And what does it tell us about the man — the American leader and the world leader — that he felt it necessary to apologize during a military ceremony?

You cannot see (or feel) it, but the entire ground shook every time a cannon fired one of its salvos in the 21-gun salute… And then there was the flyover

On the way back to Caen in a convoy of special buses, incidentally, I sat next to two Frenchmen discussing the event, the younger one of them (who looked like a very self-confident graduate of les grandes écoles) saying with a wry smile that France has been trying to take the D-Day commemorations down a notch or two for the past few years, notably this year, and that one (main) reason (if not the main reason) for the entire exercise — you would expect it to be a secondary reason, non? — is to keep America well-anchored as a friend…

It ain't a joke — unfortunately…

Update: WWII hero and D-Day survivor Arthur Seltzer relives his harrowing experience on that tragic day (merci à Arnaud)

Update 2: Smitty says he gets the impression that
Obama didn't really care about D-Day, what it means or what was accomplished. Like it's so boring, it was sixty-five years ago, with all these tottering old white guys in their VFW hats and the whole thing is so European.
Update 3: A reader of NP writes that he was watching a bit of the ceremony on television and has to
admit that I couldn’t make it to the end of Obama’s speech. It was glaringly obvious that he didn’t really have anything to say on the occasion and what he did have to say, as you point out, was all faintly apologetic. I thought it was also bizarre how he spoke of the “sheer improbability” of the victory of the Allies. By June 1944, the victory of the Allies was totally probable and the Normandy invasion made it virtually certain. The guy just knows nothing. Every word that comes out of his mouth falsifies history, even inadvertently.

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