Early morning. June. Isigny sur Mer, Normandy. Birds chirp and twill and hoot greetings of the day. A cow lows, and a duck or a goose or perhaps both. It's just before 6 a.m. on a morning not unlike the one seventy-two years ago, when the first U.S. Rangers began the D-Day assault on the 100-foot high cliffs at Point du Hoc.
I'm sitting at a table in the Vouilly Chateau, which was the U.S. First Army press camp during the Normandy campaign. Out the window, across the moat and a field enclosed in stone walls, stands a charming little outbuilding. It looks like a perfect writing for anyone undaunted by the writers whose words have passed through it. During the war, antennae sprouting from its roof allowed the press to transmit their work to the world. Journalists and photojournalists like A.J. Leibling, Andy Rooney, Robert Capa, and Ernie Pyle, wrote their war pieces here.
The wall beside me once sported maps used to show war correspondents where they might find the war on any particular morning. Now a photo takes the maps place: Pyle writing at a table by the windows as I do, a wine bottle behind his typewriter, or perhaps something stiffer, it's hard to tell in the photographs. Perhaps he is writing "Anybody Makes Mistakes," his moving piece about the short-bombings, Allied planes accidentally bombing Allied soldiers at the St. Lô-Perriers Road. "I'm sure that back in England that night other men--bomber crews--almost wept, and maybe they did really, in the awful knowledge that they had killed our own American troops."
There was a lot to forgive in that war.
The French seem mostly to have forgiven now. As I traipse around France, that is one of the things that strikes me, much the same way it struck me when I visited Vietnam. It's hard enough to imagine men speaking another language than mine arriving in tanks and bombers and uniforms to take over my world, to send my neighbors off to certain slaughter, to build concrete bunkers encasing 155 millimeter guns that left no doubt they meant to stay. Harder still--quite impossible, really--to imagine forgiving and moving on.
Certainly the birds would have been chirping the morning of June 6, 1944, just as they are now. What choice would they have had? If there were cows, they would have eaten the grass, and given up their milk for soldiers fighting the war. We are left with no body counts for them--for how many birds and cows and other animals died along with the sixty million Allied and Axis soldiers and civilians. The poor animals would have had no idea what was happening to them.
Already by this time of the morning on June 6, 1944, the D-Day assault had begun. Craters deeper than the moat out this window had been made in the earth at Point du Hoc, just eight miles to the north, by bombs meant to take out as many German guns as possible, to prepare for the 150,000 men coming ashore along a 60-mile stretch of coast in the next 24 hours.
Madame Havel, who owned this chateau at the time, would have been in her kitchen, with no idea what was coming. Her daughter-in-law, already pregnant with her son James--who now owns this chateau and opens it to folks like me who need a place to stay for the night--would have had no idea. Even the journalists who would find their way here days later had little idea.
Of the 225 Rangers who made the initial assault on the cliffs at Point du Hoc on D-Day, only 90 remained able to bear arms by D-Day+1.
The cost to the journalists, who could pick their path through the war, was less steep. Still, fifty-four of the five hundred American journalists covering the war died doing so. Ernie Pyle himself, who was killed by Japanese machine-gun fire on Ie Island in the Pacific on April 18, 1945, was the last to die.
That was the first major war after the war to end all wars. Before Korea and Vietnam. The Arab-Israeli War. Afghanistan. Iraq. As I listen to the birds and the cows and the ducks and geese on this peaceful morning, I wonder what kind of world, if any, we will leave for them when the true war to end all wars is finally won.
Meg Waite Clayton is the author of the Langum-Prize-honored national bestseller, The Race for Paris, a novel about journalists involved in the liberation of France.