As my toes froze on the South Lawn of the White House February 11,* I had no idea how the imminent appearances of President Barack Obama and French Président Francois Hollande would affect me...then and over months to come. My rapidly numbing feet nearly impelled me to flee on them, as fast as their numbness would allow, but I am glad I ignored them enough to remain.
Yes, it was interesting and moving to experience the ceremony with the music and the sense of community that can envelop a mob of strangers when we assemble to focus on a single thing. I have experienced that in theatre audiences, in political rallies and marches, in classrooms, and now I was experiencing it among a group assembled to hear what two major heads of state would say in a place so filled with history.
I spend a lot of time questioning and criticizing some of the things that our government and other governments do, but what stopped my heart that day was the simple statement by President Hollande that "each of our countries knows what it owes to the other -- its freedom." ** The details to which he referred were that General Lafayette -- whose full name was the fabulous Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette, Marquis de La Fayette -- sailed from France to serve under General George Washington, helping the American colonies win their freedom from Great Britain and become the United States of America, and then nearly 170 years later, U.S. forces landed at Normandy on June 6, 1944, to begin to liberate France from four years of Nazi occupation.
I was deeply moved because the ideals of true freedom, true equality, and true respect for humankind are always affecting, however we might grieve the failures of governments, organizations, corporations, and individuals to live up to them.
I was also moved -- to the point that temporarily I could not physically move -- because my late father, Jerome A. Caplan, and two of the men I know who served with him, Isaac Pope of Kinston, N.C., and Charles Johnson of Oakland, CA, landed at Normandy on July 9, 1944, in the long continuation of that invasion, and at the moment of hearing the words of Président Hollande, I knew that I must go to Normandy this summer.
When I wrote When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home,*** I said that few Americans want to think about veterans, in part because thinking about veterans means thinking about war. I knew avoid such avoidance firsthand, because despite adoring my father and despite the fact that he was a terrific storyteller, I had never been able to retain in memory the stories he told yearly about his time in the military and especially at the Battle of the Bulge, where he and his soldiers were completely surrounded by the Nazis as the snow fell hard and almost horizontally. I realized only recently that what caused my memory problems was that it was unbearable to know that my beloved father had been in such danger ... even though he himself never spoke of any danger to him, just about the wonderful men with whom he served and some of the other realities of war. So last month, when I arrived in Normandy, my first inclination -- when I studied brochures showing how to get from Honfleur, where I was staying, to Utah Beach, where my father and his men landed, I noticed that halfway between, in the city of Caen, there is a memorial museum about the war -- was not to go to Caen. That may seem strange in light of why I had come to Normandy, but it reflects my deep aversion to thinking about war.
I overcame my reluctance to go to the Caen museum and will always be glad that I did. It is one thing to be thousands of miles from the battle zones and read about what happened; it is quite another to travel through a museum in Normandy and to see pictures and videos of what occurred right there. In some way that I had barely registered before, the fact that the French people lived for four years -- four years -- under Nazi occupation and that hundreds of thousands had fled the Nazi encroachment and become refugees, sleeping in barns, within their own country ... all of this became real, and the heaviness of the reality was palpable.
Driving toward Utah Beach almost two weeks ago in a rental car, I could hardly bear the beauty of the countryside -- the green farmlands filled with cattle and growing crops, the smell and then the sight of the ocean -- because all that beauty makes unimaginable the carnage happened there. I had the same feeling decades ago when I took my then teenaged children to Bastogne, Belgium, where the Battle of the Bulge was fought.
Getting out of the car at Utah Beach, I glanced at the beach itself on my left but first went to the important museum there, the most powerful element of which is a video filled with interviews of people from the surrounding area who lived through that time. Happily, the video, called "Utah Beach: Victory in the Sand," is available in English and French. In the trailer of it at http://www.cine.org/film/utah-beach-victory-in-the-sand/ you see portions about the landing itself but no clips of the stunning interviews with the citizens who lived nearby and who are in fact seen in the video.
Then I walked across the sand and down toward the water. I hadn't known what I would feel or think. What came to mind was this: I remembered my father saying that it felt important to be in that war, because you knew that Hitler was a monster. That had stuck in my mind -- what and whom the fight was against. But having just seen all of the information about what the French citizens went through, I had a greater sense of whom the fighting had been for. I walked down to the water, dipped my hand in it, and turned so that my back was to the ocean. I pictured my father, Isaac Pope, and Charles Johnson -- all dear, peaceful, gentle men I have had the honor to know -- emerging from the landing vehicles and trying to ensure that the trucks somehow hauled the Howitzers out of the ocean. Looking up and seeing the cliff that rises up just yards from the ocean, I wondered how in the world they had gotten the equipment up the cliffs.
At that moment, it struck me that during their landing, my father and the other soldiers knew what in some sense it had taken me decades to register...whom they were there to save. How both daunting and inspiring I am guessing that must have felt. In a photo of a shop window I took in Normandy, there is a sign reading "Welcome to Our Liberators" that appears all over France today, reflecting the palpable sense of the gratitude so many French people feel to Americans, as though the liberation had only just now happened.
I also wondered something else, with a smile. My father was a francophile, like me, and like both my mother and me, he loved the French language. His accent was so good that when he spoke French during WWII in France and later in Belgium, the French and the Belgians assumed he was one of their own. He grew up poor in Hartford, Connecticut, attended Wesleyan College and then Columbia in NYC. He was drafted and then went to Officer Candidate School soon after the U.S. entered the fighting. So at Utah Beach last month, I wondered whether my father was perhaps also excited that he would be able to speak a language that he had always loved in a country where that was the native tongue.
Listening to veterans over the years, I struggle as I hear about war...some of the veterans I greatly respect saying it (whatever their war was) was all a waste and nothing but carnage, some I greatly respect saying it (whatever their war was) was vile but that it was necessary because it was against things that are even more vile. My respect for all of them and their obvious sincerity makes me wish all the more that those who have the power to order our military into danger would try to find other ways to protect the lives of all. I know it is complicated to decide how much to try and how long to wait when others are oppressed and even killed, but the treasures that are these veterans renders it all the more compelling that we know the truth about why our government sent them and will want to send the veterans of the future into war.
I wonder how it has felt, as Kathleen Barry has written in her brilliant book, Unmaking War, Remaking Men,**** to be a man in the United States, growing up knowing that (as has been true until very recently) only people of your sex are considered expendable. Some I know would say, "I consider myself responsible to protect my country, my family, and democracy," and I do not question that that motivates them. But Barry's challenge to us is to consider how it affects our country to raise one sex to know that they may well die for the decisions their government makes to go to war, while the other sex has not been raised to know that about themselves.
Now that women can in some cases serve in combat roles, the considerations are somewhat changed, but until and unless we have another military draft, we will not again have generations of people who, like the men who served in World War II and through the years until the draft ended in 1973, were considered -- without it being so baldly stated -- expendable. If I try to put myself in the position of a man whose age made him eligible for the draft during that time or who wanted to enlist anyway, I wonder how it would make me feel about women, who grew up without the expectation, never mind the requirement, that they could serve in combat and die at a very young age. What a strange combination of expectation, demand, and for some, what would be considered great privilege to be connected with men but not with women.
Then think about the candid statement many veterans have made about the intense fear of even knowing you could be drafted, not to mention actually being in combat, since courage in battle does not mean becoming unafraid, and terror is a common and nearly universal feeling when one is at war. Those feeling terror are expected not to mind or at least somehow to manage to survive unscathed by the terror caused by knowing they could die at any moment. They are too often expected to zoom past the devastating grief of losing beloved comrades in battle ... or losing their own innocence about the evil that humans can inflict on each other. Are these not intolerable burdens to place on anyone? And how shocking and unconscionable it is that we rush to call those who are not unscathed "mentally ill" rather than deeply human.
Whatever we feel about war in general or about a particular war, this is a plea to declare today our independence as a nation from those who would pathologize -- and distance themselves from -- those who have suffered in war, be they men or women, be their suffering due to combat or to having been sexually assaulted or victimized in other ways.
*https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-372v-i1MM shows a bit of the ceremony
**http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/02/11/remarks-president-obama-and-president-hollande-france-arrival-ceremony has the full text of the addresses by both President Obama and Président Hollande
***whenjohnnyandjanecomemarching.weebly.com, and Facebook page "When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home"