Yesterday is the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Just to provide some historical context: by 1943, the Germans had dominated most of Europe. They had conquered most of Western Europe in a series of military campaigns between 1939 and 1941. Between 1941 and 1942, Germany also turned on its ally to the East, the Soviet Union, and successfully conquered parts of the Soviet Union. Although the Germans were turned back by the Soviets in a series of successful Soviet military victories – such as in the Battle of Stalingrad (taking place in late 1942 and early 1943) and the battle of Kursk (taking place in the summer of 1943), the German military presence in the East was not entirely defeated. Likewise, most of Western Europe remained under German control, except for those countries that were neutral, Germany’s ally Italy, and Britain (which, nonetheless, was still subject to German airstrikes). As early as 1942, the Soviets proposed a military strategy in which the British and American forces invade Germany from the West, while the Soviets invade from the East. This would divide the military personnel and resources of the Germans, thereby making it easier for them to be defeated. While British and American forces believed that such a strategy would likely work (though there were some reservations among the British chain of command, and even Churchill himself), the act of agreeing to such a strategy and working out its details was frequently delayed due to other military campaigns fought during this time (such as the invasion of Italian forces in North Africa). A series of different military plans were developed building on this strategy, mainly by American military leaders, but the one that took effect – Operation Overlord – was agreed upon by a series of meetings between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt in 1943. Combined American and British forces would sail across the British Channel and land on the beaches of Normandy northern France. If they could successfully defeat the German soldiers there, it would be easier for them to work their way into France and drive out the German occupation, which would, at the very least, serve as a major setback for the German attempts to occupy Western Europe. This operation was carried out a year later. Between April and June of 1944, in preparation for the invasion itself, a series of British and American planes bombed the bridges and train tracks leading to the area to be invaded, which would thus isolate the German troops stationed there from the rest of the German military presence in France. At 6:30 in the morning on June 6, British and Canadian forces landed Gold Beach, Juno Beach and Sword Beach, and shortly thereafter American forces landed on Utah Beach and Omaha Beach just west of the Anglo-Canadian forces. Shortly before the attack, Hitler figured out what the Allied plan was, and increased the number of mines on the beaches and the number of tanks in reserve. Thankfully, the Allies managed to counteract this. British anti-tank gunners managed to keep the German counterattack at bay. Within a day after the initial landing, most if not all of the beaches in Normandy that were under invasion had been captured by the Allies, and by June 12 (six days after the initial invasion), American forces had worked their way 15 miles inland, and retook the French city of Carentan. Throughout the Summer of 1944, battles between the Anglo-American forces on the one hand and the Germans on the other were intense. German forces stationed in and near the city of Caen initiated a series of counterattacks, some of which were successful. The Germans defeated the British in a battle taking place on June 13, as well as in a battle taking place between June 25 and June 29. Further, much of the military infrastructure built by the British and Americans just off the coast of Normandy was severely damaged or destroyed due to unfavorable weather. This caused some within the Allied chain of command to become doubtful of the chances of success. Thankfully, the Germans were also becoming emotionally worn, and their supplies were running low due to the battles. On June 28, the Allies retook the city of Cherbourg. Cherbourg was the last major German stronghold on the Cotentin Peninsula (the Peninsula on which the invasion took place). Within a month, the British and American forces were quickly heading southwards. Hitler devised a counterattack, but when Allied forces intercepted the plans, they were able to quelch the German attack. Some American forces stationed in the west near Brittany eventually met up with British and American forces from the east near Caen, and with this led to a stronger and more unified Allied front. They began to move southward at an even faster pace, and Hitler, realizing that his forces had little chance at success, withdrew his forces from Normandy. More and more the Allies took northern France, and quickly headed towards Paris. Since Paris is in northern France, the German defeat in northern France led to a decline in the German military presence in Paris. On August 19, supporters of the French Resistance rose up against the few remaining German forces there, and were eventually joined by American and British forces. On August 25, German forces surrendered, and the capital of France was freed.
The liberation of France from then on out was now inevitable. Meanwhile, the German forces in Eastern Europe began to weaken and retreat. Within a little under a year, Allied forces were invading Germany from both the east and the west, resulting in the German surrender in May of 1945.
Such a victory was not without a high price. Within the first 24 hours of D-Day, 1,465 American troops died, 1,928 went missing, and 6,603 were injured. According to German estimates, between 4,000 and 9,000 German troops were killed, wounded or went missing. Between 11,000 and 19,000 civilians were killed during the pre-invasion strikes. Over the course of the entire period of French liberation, 200,000 Allied and 300,000 German soldiers died.
Now, as good as it is to remember those who died defending their country, especially if they fought in just wars, how does this effect the average, everyday Catholic in their spiritual development? Now, a lot of my Catholic readers may tune me out even upon saying this unspeakable name. He is the one Protestants who makes the Catholic Answers crowd break from their ecumenism – an ecumenism which really is just a delicate attempt to “reach across the isle,” so to speak, without falling into the liberal, “Let’s sit around the campfire and sing kumbayah” mentality – and speak with the same level of vitriol that Catholics spoke against Protestants in the 16th century. This because this man sometimes speaks with the same level of vitriol towards Catholics. But, this doesn’t negate when a person makes a good point.
James White, the famous Reformed Baptist preacher and apologist, recently published a livestream on YouTube commemorating D-Day. During the course of the livestream, he brought up two interesting points. The first is that those soldiers or veterans who spend a lot of time talking about their war memories are usually not the ones who did a lot of fighting. Yet, those who did the most fighting usually tend to be the ones who talk about it the least. Why is that? Out of a sense of humility, perhaps. A lot of soldiers fight not for the sake of glory but because of a sense of duty. Yet, a large reason is also because of the trauma experienced as a result of battle. And this leads to a second point: White sees a correlation between the Second World War and the social decadence and decline in religious devotion that marked the following generation. Commenting on the immense destruction of the Second World War – how some military campaigns or battles, taken alone, were sometimes more destructive than entire wars prior to that point – he notes that “a nominal Christianity can’t survive that.” The average European did not have a deep faith, and thus their trust in God was shattered by the destructiveness of the war. Without a living faith, and living, spiritually robust faith communities to support them, their ability to come to terms with the immense evil and destruction surrounding the war was pushed to its limits. This created a sense of jadedness which culminated in the cultural revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s, which abandoned mainstream organized religion as something that was perceived as impotent to actually help man with real spiritual or moral dilemmas, and in fact was an obstacle to progress.
Whether or not this is true is something that can be debated and proven or disproven through further research. But, White does have a point: unless our gazes are set firmly on God, it is easy to see the struggles and hardships of this world as merely a meaningless absurdity.
There is some sense in which conflict – at least within the context of war – is absurd. Millions of people died in a conflict caused by an egomaniacal dictator who idolized his race and culture, who idolized the pursuit of power – all of which is born out of the idolization of the self, which is the cause of all sin, no matter how minuscule. How can one not see the moral and existential absurdity there? Yet, this absurdity speaks more to the reality of existence in its fallen state than to the nature of existence as such. The absurdity of human sinfulness – which expresses itself one way through war and conflict – is absurd precisely because it flies in the face of what it means to be human.
If you accept this, then you accept that there is justice. Something can’t be wrong unless it is a deviation from or a failure to attain what is objectively right. The term “justice” is derived from the Latin term jus, which literally means “right.” This is reflected in words derived from this: juste, an adjective that means, “correctly,” “rightly,” or “properly”; justitia, an adjective meaning “uprightness” or “justice”; and justum, a noun meaning “that which is just, right or proper in and of itself.” Justice always implies right order. It can, as it is most commonly used, refer to right order within relationships; yet, it can also refer to right order on an ontological level. Thus, there is a concept within Catholic thought called “original justice.” Original justice is a state in which man’s being is rightly ordered: man’s lower desires are ordered towards reason, and reason has its sights firmly fixed on God. Yet, sin negates such as state. This is the traditional definition of original sin: not as the inherited guilt of a particular sin, but rather as the negation of original justice.
Right order within man was thus offset by sin. This is why there is a certain amount of absurdity to life. Yet, God has not abandoned us; God calls us to a life of holiness, a life of justice, love, peace, chastity, purity, reasonableness, selflessness, and even in our fallen state gives us the means to live accordingly. It is easy for one without faith to see intense and destructive conflicts as a sign that life is intrinsically absurd. Yet, for one with faith, they see violence, hatred and conflict as absurd not because it is a reflection of the true nature of existence, but because it is a violation of the way things ought to be. There is an objective way things ought to be, and there is a God Who, in His grace and Providence, is restoring such a state. Thus, war is a sign of human fallenness; yet, fighting against the forces of evil that make war necessary, resisting evil and standing for justice, is only meaningful if it presupposes that life is not absurd, but meaningful.
- To read more about the history of D-Day, visit: https://www.britannica.com/event/Normandy-Invasion; https://www.history.com/news/d-day-casualties-deaths-allies; https://www.historyonthenet.com/d-day-casualties; https://www.thedailybeast.com/romanticizing-d-day-ignores-thousands-of-civilian-deaths
- To see James White’s livestream, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3nh9_LYUTo
- “The White Latin Dictionary (Latin-English and English-Latin): New Edition”, by John D. White, D.D. Oxon. (Follett Publishing Company, Chicago, 1938), pg. 828-820