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Friday, June 04, 2004

June 6th, 1944

The price of war does not stop being paid when the guns fall silent. This was driven home to me when I bought my first house from an older couple who had lived there for many years. My grandfather, a Marine who'd fought on Guadacanal and Tarawa, recognized the home seller as an Army veteran and asked where he'd served.

In Europe, the man answered, and his eyes filled unexpectedly with tears. He turned away for a moment, and then, composed again, he apologized and explained that he'd lost his brother in Normandy. This conversation was taking place 53 years later, but it was clear that the pain still lingered.

It is almost impossible for us, sixty years later, to understand the grim realities of D-Day. Yes, we are unfortunate enough to live in what a Chinese sage described as the curse of interesting times, and yet, we do not yet live in a real state of war. Most of us know a few soldiers who are involved in the present conflict - I was relieved to receive an email yesterday from my Italian cousin in Baghdad, telling me that he was fine after the embassy attack - but it is not the vast majority of young men of our acquaintance who are in uniform and in danger as was the case back then.

A few years ago, I took part in a massive simulation of Gold Beach, using the Advanced Squad Leader system. Each player was responsible for a section of the beach; I was commanding three companies of British troops plus 12 Shermans and a few funnies. The experience drove home how a relatively small number of defending German troops were able to inflict terrible casualties on the landing Allies, and it was sobering to see the pile of cardboard casualties grow and realize that each piece represented the lives of ten men.

To the left, I lost an entire company, and only a lucky shot and a wildly aggressive charge by one Sherman commander allowed me to take out the two AT-guns and get the two surviving companies off the beach. It was only a game, and yet, it is true that the valiant action of a single brave man can make all the difference in the world to the rest of the men involved.

In the end, after many hours, the Allies triumphed on the table just as they had many years before on the real beaches. But there was no celebration by the winners, instead we found ourselves standing quietly around the massive array of maps, contemplating those who had fought and died so long ago. Some may think that it is strange and silly, if not downright disrespectful, to view the tragic loss of human life through the lens of a wargame. But, sixty years later, this is the only lens that many of us have.

Soon, all the young men who stormed Normandy will be gone. But as long as there are other young men who are curious about history, who want to know what happened when, where and why, neither they nor their sacrifice will ever be forgotten.

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