One of the truest clichés is that war is hell.
Today is 65 years since Operation Overlord began – also known as D-Day. This day stands as one of the great moments of triumph in the wars of good versus evil that are seared into our consciousness. I have always viewed the actions of the soldiers who landed on the beaches to be nothing short of heroic, and I still do, but I am burdened by the casualties from the event. I wrote a post recently on my attitude towards war and I must confess I have difficulties bringing together my hatred of war and my thanks for the heroes of D-Day.
Consider the casualties from Operation Overlord. This is taken directly from Wikipedia and it bears reading and pondering:
The cost of the Normandy campaign had been high for both sides. From D-Day to 21 August the Allies had landed 2,052,299 men in northern France. The Allies lost around 209,672 casualties from June 6 to the end of August, around 10 % of the forces landed in France. The casualties breaks down to 36,976 killed, 153,475 wounded and 19,221 missing. Split between the Army-Groups; the Anglo-Canadian Army-Group suffered 16,138 killed, 58,594 wounded and 9,093 missing for a total of 83,825 casualties. The American Army-Group suffered 20,838 killed, 94,881 wounded and 10,128 missing for a total of 125,847 casualties. To these casualties it should be added that no less then 4,101 aircrafts were lost and 16,714 airmen were killed in direct connection to Operation Overlord. Thus total Allied casualties rises to 226,386 men. 78 Free French SAS (Special Air Service) killed, 195 wounded in Brittany from 5 June to the beginning of August. For Allied tank losses there are no direct number. A fair estimate is that around 4,000 tanks were destroyed, of which 2,000 were fighting in American units.
The German casualties remains unclear. The estimates of the German casualties stretches from 288,000 men to 450,000 men. Just in the Falaise Gap the Germans lost around 60,000 men in killed, wounded and captured. The majority of the German casualties contained of POWs as nearly 200,000 were captured during the closure of the battle. The Germans committed around 2,300 tanks and assault guns to the battle in Normandy, and only around 100 to 120 were brought back across the Seine. The overwhelming majority of the German tanks destroyed were put out of action by the Allied airforce, while very few of the Allied tank losses were inflicted by the Luftwaffe.
19,860 French civilians were killed during the liberation of Normandy, and an even greater number were wounded. The number excludes the 15,000 civilians killed and the 19,000 wounded in the bombings of Normandy in preparation of the invasion. Many cities and towns in Normandy and northern France were totally devastated by the fighting and the bombings. As many as 70,000 French civilians may have been killed during the liberation of France in 1944.
These numbers are staggering. Keep in ming that is for less than two months of fighting and such losses are entirely unbelievable by today’s expectations.
D-Day is considered a great triumph. It was the first major stake through the heart of European fascism and Nazi ambitions. We use the words “saved the world from fascism” and “liberated Europe” when we talk about D-Day and its heroes. I have always had strong emotions about WWII and D-Day. The opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan truly chokes me up. I spent hundreds of hours as a kid pouring over my WWII book collection, closely examining photographs, reading the stories, and wishing I had been there. However, D-Day can also be seen a part of a huge failure. A failure not merely because there where many political options not exercised by the Europeans and Americans all through the 1930s that could have dealt with the rise of Hitler and fascism and avoided war altogether, and not merely because one source of WWII was the WWI (the war to end all wars) which also could have been avoided but was entered into with relish by all sides, but D-Day is a failure because all war is failure. War is a powerful and profound testament of human evil. To seek war, whether from selfish ambition, glory, or even from a felt obligation is, to use an old but still valid term, sinful.
More than ever on days like this one, where we appropriately remember the sacrifices of so many human lives for causes that we believe in, I am in conflict. Should those soldiers have stormed the beaches in Normandy 65 years ago to save the world? Maybe not, for war is wrong. And yet they did and I am grateful they did. So today I will remember what those soldiers did and what they gave (in fact I am in awe of their service), but I will also remember and grieve the casualties on all sides, including the civilian casualties, and I will remember that the human tendency to war and glorify war is my tendency too because I am a sinner.