Knee-deep in blood-soaked battlefields

Wars can only be justified when they serve life-affirming values, not the glory of kings or generals.

The two sides of war – useless carnage on the one hand, necessary heroism on the other – were consistently in evidence as I toured the World War I and II battlefields of Belgium and France with my wife and older children.
In Flanders and at the Somme, where millions of soldiers lost their lives in the First World War to capture a few yards (which were quickly recaptured by the enemy), the feel of death lingers nearly a century later. Everywhere around the towns of Albert at the Somme and Ypres in Flanders there are graves, endless mounds of graves – so many that it would take weeks to visit them all. Military cemeteries dot the landscape with the ubiquitousness of Starbucks or McDonald’s.

Each cemetery has hundreds and often thousands of headstones.
Never have I been surrounded by so much death. A single British memorial at Thiepval lists the names of 72,000 soldiers whose bodies were never recovered.
The pockmarked, cratered battlefields where so many soldiers died in vain are likewise everywhere along the massive “Western Front,” which extended from Switzerland to the North Sea. Nearly 100 years later, the cemeteries are still beautifully maintained by the British, Canadian, Irish and South African governments. The famous poppies that came to define World War I still grow between the graves and on the side of the road, reminiscent of John McCrae’s unforgettable poem, “Flanders Fields.”
And the overwhelming emotion felt by the visitor a century later is a sense of the utter stupidity and futility of war. Painful as it is to say, those millions of men, including the 400,000 British casualties of the Somme offensive which yielded only a few hundred yards (which the Germans retook just months later), died for nothing.
Not that the military cemeteries would ever admit as much. In nearly all of them, the first words you encounter, etched in bright stone, are “They Fought for Freedom,” or some such banner. But the truth isadd that they fought for the limitless egos of European imperialists and the megalomania of clueless generals.
BY DRIVING southwest for just three hours, however, you see the beaches of Normandy, and a uniquely American face of war. Just as I can scarcely describe the feelings of horror I experienced amid the tombstones of the Somme, I struggle to convey the inspiration of fulfilling my lifelong dream to stand on the invasion beaches of D-Day. On the British and Canadian beaches of Sword, Juno and Gold, and especially on the American beaches of Omaha and Utah, heroism glimmers from every particle of sand, and bravery shimmers from the crest of every wave. Here was war with a noble, human objective. Not to win “glory,” but to defeat evil. Not to expand empire, but to crush tyranny.
Omaha Beach should be an American Mecca – a place of required pilgrimage for every US citizen. As I stood on the vast expanse of that beach, I closed my eyes and tried to see the nearly 3,000 Americans who died storming a heavily fortified stretch of shoreline, dodging machine gun nests, evading mortar fire, jumping from tanks hit by German 88-mm.
cannons, until they could fight no more, falling amid the withering German crossfire in defense of people they had never met.
Walking among the perfect rows of silent crosses and Magen Davids of the 10,000 Americans interred at the Omaha Beach cemetery, you can still feel the tremor of millions of soldiers hurling themselves against Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall” to liberate a continent that Americans had themselves abandoned 150 years earlier because of its limits on human freedom. To witness the scale of the effort – like the remnants of the mammoth artificial “Mulberry” harbor at Arromanches, built in the absence of a captured port to feed and supply the immense army – is to be rendered small as you bear silent witness to those justly labeled “The Greatest Generation.”
Americans do not fight wars for medals or conquest. They fight for liberty and freedom. Colin Powell expressed it best: “Over the years, the United States has sent many of its fine young men and women into great peril to fight for freedom beyond our border. The only amount of land we have ever asked for in return is enough to bury those that did not return.”
THOSE NOBLE ideals should guide the current debate as to whether America should be participating, with the French and English, in the fight against Muammar Gaddafi, as more Republicans join the criticism of President Barack Obama for bombing Libya without congressional approval.
As with any nation, there are limits to our manpower and resources. America should not have to be the world’s policeman – a goal originally set for a now toothless and corrupt United Nations. But as someone who has criticized Obama in the past for showing weakness toward Iran in 2009 and doing next to nothing about Syria this year, I strongly applaud his efforts to bomb the hell out of Gaddafi’s thugs, who are slaughtering their own people.
I am amazed that any Republican would feel differently.
The British humiliated themselves by freeing the Lockerbie bomber in what seemed to be capitulation for an oil deal favoring BP. Likewise, the French condemned America for removing Saddam Hussein, a man who gassed thousands of children. But both nations have found a measure of redemption in their bold campaign to punish Gaddafi for brutalizing innocent people. And the thought that the United States should not, at the very least, participate with drones, logistics and ordinance, even as British and French pilots carry the heaviest load to pummel a bloodthirsty tyrant, runs contrary to every American value.
It was we Americans who inspired our European brethren to put aside war as an instrument of glory and employ it solely as an apparatus to protect dignified life.
It was we who saved Britain from invasion and France from occupation.
And now that they, too, are fighting to protect complete strangers, we dare not retreat from values midwifed by generations of brave Americans.
The writer was the London Times Preacher of the Year in 1999, and is the international best-selling author of 25 books, including An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Judaism (Duckworth).

On Twitter: @RabbiShmuley.