I’ve been thinking a lot today about the young people of the Allied liberation of France, which started 74 years ago today with the invasion of Normandy. Many of them were several years younger than I am now, but they took on a challenge bigger than any I’ve ever faced. I almost can’t write about it. It’s beyond me how they held up to it.
War is a destructive blight. But despite that there were exceptionally good men who were at their best in Normandy, and who showed the radical courage and goodness possible to human beings. Whatever the issues with their political rulers and ideologies (and there were many*), I have extraordinary respect for the bunch of 18 year-olds played a major part in freeing Europe from a great evil. It’s impossible for me not to think of what they did without tearing up.
I will probably never face a challenge as great as the one these young people saw. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to try. After an example like that, how could I not? Great undertakings inspire me, make me better, and make life meaningful.
It’s easy to assume that we’re at the “end of history,” and that all the big stuff has already happened to the generations that went before us. That would be a mistake. G.K. Chesterton said once that people were perishing not from “want of wonders, but from want of wonder.” While we may not have as well-defined a challenge as “defeating the Nazis,” if we are perishing, we’re perishing not from lack of challenges, but from a lack of a challenger spirit.
It takes a challenger spirit to distill and notice and act on the big undertakings open to us – many of which are in reach within our lifetimes:
- Expanding into space
- Securing equality of freedom and authority for all people
- Ending child abuse and abandonment
- Ending involuntary poverty
- Dethroning authoritarian regimes and ideologies
- Eliminating diseases like malaria
- Ending human trafficking and slavery
- Abolishing nuclear weapons
- Finding ways to reverse environmental damage
There’s plenty to do, and with any luck, we’ll live to do these things in relative peace and freedom. They will take things like starting companies and inventing things and writing books and making art – not going to war. But some of these tasks will take more time, effort, careful thought, and moral courage even than the planning and execution of Operation Overlord. That’s a tall order, but I’d say it’s a poor way to honor the men and women of the Normandy invasion to not try.
And if we ever wonder whether it’s possible, we only have to look back on a day like today and realize that individual men took on an extraordinary challenge – and that they lived through it, and that they didn’t run from the work.
* While I honor the courage of the men at Normandy, I also can’t forget that WWII has its own share of harmful mythology that hides truly despicable acts even by the Allied powers. Many of things we hate about the Axis powers happened under Allied authority also – bombing of civilians, concentration camp internment, imperialism, forced labor and forced enlistment, war atrocities, support of dictatorship, fascist civil and economic rule, and more. It’s for this reason that I won’t join most people in lionizing WWII as a “good war.” I don’t believe such a thing is possible.