Letter from Military History – November 2009

Real Places

CBS had almost the right idea with its 1950s radio and television series You Are There, trying to bring the audience an accurate sense—the sights and sounds, anyway—of historic events.

Except for the troubling fact that you were not there. You were sitting in your living room, passively listening to or watching “those events that alter and illuminate our times,” as host Walter Cronkite used to proclaim. Those old programs were, as we’d say now, “reality-based.” But they were not reality.

All the real elements of, say, a major battle have now left the scene. They are history: All the sights, sounds, smells are lost to us, as are the soldiers on both sides, and the weapons and other gear. All the pain and fear, the exultation and the horrors of that event, have faded into memory.

The places remain. The site of a major battle, like Omaha Beach, is not reality-based. It is reality. And walking today on that wide-open stretch of sand—miles of it—feeling the blustery channel winds, looking up at the grassy bluffs and smelling salt air, brings a sense of personal scale, of physical relationships, of tactile challenges that cannot be appreciated except by being there. Bill Mauldin, in one of the most perceptive of his World War II cartoons, expressed the idea best when he placed his battle-worn GIs, Willie and Joe, on the heights of Anzio, staring out toward the beach after that bloody four-month battle in 1944, saying, “My God, here they wuz, an’ there we wuz!”

That is precisely the thought that occurs to every contemporary visitor to Omaha Beach. When you stand on that wide-open shore, looking up at the very nearby bluffs and now vacant concrete gun emplacements that had clear command of every square foot of that beach, the same thoughts occur: How did the Germans fail to kill every single American soldier that waded ashore? And how did the surviving soldiers manage, finally, to storm those bluffs and move inland? When you are standing in that place, what they did looks impossible.

It is also impossible to understand fully what happened in Normandy, Luzon, Manassas or Yorktown until you stand in those places. That’s why the military conducts staff rides and why, if you care about history, you should travel to those very real battlefields.

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