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Lessons from D-Day

On June 6, 2019, we commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the Normandy landings that established an Allied beachhead in Europe for the crusade against fascism. Anniversaries like this are more than just an occasion to remember the past. They also allow us to reflect on how our understanding of a historical moment can better prepare us to face our own challenges. Three lessons from D-Day seem particularly relevant today.

General Eisenhower speaking with paratroopers before D-Day.

Democracy requires sacrifice. 

As the saying goes, “Freedom is not free.” On D-Day alone, over 10,000 Allied troops were killed, wounded, or captured. We have them and others who have served in the Armed Forces to thank for what they sacrificed for the rest of us.

Most Americans today will never wear the uniform. That does not lessen our responsibility to advance democracy in other ways. We need citizens willing to devote their time and energy through volunteerism, public service, and serious political engagement.

British forces landing at Gold Beach.

Some challenges are too big to go alone.

In his statement on the 10th anniversary of D-Day, President Eisenhower paid tribute to the union of nations that stood together against the Axis Powers. “Despite the losses and suffering involved in that human effort, and in the epic conflict of which it was a part, we today find in those experiences reasons for hope and inspiration,” he wrote. “They remind us particularly of the accomplishments attainable through close cooperation and friendship among free peoples striving toward a common goal.” These remarks were not lofty words. Eisenhower knew better than most that some challenges are too big to go alone.

The common good is not served by showing suspicion to our allies or provoking our rivals. As we stand on the brink of a new age of isolationism, we would do well to remember another upcoming anniversary: that of the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe in September 1939.

Into the Jaws of Death by Robert F. Sargent.

Fear is natural, but it must be surmounted.

The D-Day operations would have failed if large numbers of men refused to leave the boats, or if in the chaos of battle they forgot their orders. The men who landed at Normandy faced down machine guns, artillery fire, and land mines—threats that few of us will ever face. Our fears today are more abstract: climate change, financial insecurity, demographic shifts, or the breakdown of democratic norms.

Nonetheless, these challenges are real and frightening. While fear is often legitimate, we cannot allow it to rule us, divide us, or paralyze us. Fear is the bane of freedom.

On D-Day, the objective was clear. The challenges facing us today are less so. United in courage and self-sacrifice, 160,000 men landed on D-Day to begin the battle to safeguard democracy. We must find a way to do the same.

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