Omaha Beach 6 June 1944
Emmanuel Macron will not attend the 75th anniversary of D-Day, “saying that French presidents only lead international D-Day ceremonies on round-number anniversaries such as the 60th or 70th. … critics argue that he should make an exception this year as it is likely to be the last major D-Day anniversary while veterans are still alive.”
To Macron, who was born in 1977, D-Day must seem like ancient history. The French president is currently more interested in preserving his alliance with Berlin than in commemorating the reopening of the Second Front against Hitler a full three generations ago.
Concrete bunker built by the Wehrmacht, Omaha Beach
It is probably hard for a man of Macron’s age to feel the emotional urgency of those distant days. Seventy-five years ago, the human impact of the invasion could scarcely be understated. Over 4,400 soldiers died in a single day, the Longest Day, so named in popular culture after Erwin Rommel’s prescient observation: “The first twenty-four hours of the invasion will be decisive. . . . For the Allies as well as Germany, it will be the longest day.”
It was an all-out throw of the dice. A maximum effort. There was no plan B if it didn’t work. Had it failed, Eisenhower would have said: “Our landings have failed and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.” The consequences of defeat would have been incalculable.
If an Allied repulse on D-Day did not actually lead to some form of victory for Hitler, at best it would have meant another costly year of war, ruinous for Britain, the extinction of the last remaining remnants of European Jewry through completion of the Final Solution, culminating almost certainly with the employment of the first atomic bombs in the summer of 1945 — on Germany, not Japan. Sweeping through a ‘nuked’ Germany, the victorious Red Army would have stopped nowhere short of the Rhine. Lost to Communism, Europe, and the world, would have been a very different place today.
But the men of D-Day closed off these alternative futures; they won and by winning shut out an infinity of possibilities and set us on the path we are on today. And what a long way it has been. Three generations ago the French and British empires still existed. The USSR was an ally. Churchill had not yet coined the term “Iron Curtain.” On the Los Alamos plateau, physicists still wondered whether an atom bomb would work. The only electronic computer in the world was at Bletchley Park, a guarded secret. Space travel was as yet a fantastic dream.
Seventy-five years later, most universities teach those empires were things of horror. The USSR is no more. “A fifth of British teenagers believe Sir Winston Churchill was a fictional character, while many think Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur and Eleanor Rigby were real.” The atom bomb waxed, waned and waxed again. Nearly everyone carries a computer in his pocket orders of magnitude more powerful than Bletchley’s Colossus. Man landed on the moon 50 years ago.
And what of D-Day? Like the fading black and white chemical film on which its images were captured, modern culture has lost the detail, emotional tone and context once provided by living memory. What still remains is posterized, compressed and pixellated to the point where, to paraphrase Tennyson, “they are become a name.” The Longest Day grows less distinct with each passing year.
Less distinct but no less real. Ironically the problem of Dunkirk 2 — aka Brexit — is the consequence of Britain’s return to the continent that fateful day. Recently Macron attended the burial of two French commandos who died rescuing hostages from al Qaeda in Mali as part of the War on Terror, itself the result of America’s accession to world power on June 6, 1944. “Tho’ much is taken, much abides.” So much abides that we take it for granted. It is part of the fabric, no longer a surprise.
The basic idea of information theory is that the “news value” of a communicated message depends on the degree to which the content of the message is surprising. If an event is very probable, it is no surprise (and generally uninteresting) when that event happens as expected. However, if an event is unlikely to occur, it is much more informative to learn that the event happened or will happen.
If entropy represents hidden information, the diffuse and incalculable effect of the past, then D-Day is now almost completely obscured because it has become part of the carrier wave, its message not so much lost as universally known. Macron feels no need to attend the Last Longest Day because he knows the news already: the probability the Third Reich will continue to occupy France is zero. If he had the slightest doubt, he would rush to Juno beach in a heartbeat.
What still has the power to surprise is the present. It is for the current generation to decide whether to build a new dark age of universal surveillance or one of expanding freedom. It is for the present to decide whether to succumb to new cults or keep the flame. The men of the Longest Day have done their job. Only the living can still make history. The past has already made it.
Above: Omaha Beach, 1947
Marche des soldats de Robert Bruce* • Loin de chez nous ●
Hommage national 14 Mai 2019
* Robert Bruce – the Scottish victor over King Edward II at Bannockburn, 1314.
Cédric de Pierrepont, Commando Hubert, 17/07/1986 – 10/05/2019
Alain Bertoncello, Commando Hubert, 1991 – 10/05/2019