Why Visit Normandy? Reflections on a Birthplace of the Liberal International Order
I have twice had the privilege of leading students on excursions to the beaches, cemeteries, and museums of Normandy, France. The visit can be emotionally overwhelming. The rows of crosses at the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach and the numberless headstones at the British Commonwealth War Cemetery at Ranville are haunting. Shell craters larger than Mack trucks still pockmark the landscape at Point du Hoc. German artillery is still in its encasements at La Longues gun battery. You can watch footage from the battles at the Arromanches 360 Cinema just above Gold Beach and at the Caen Memorial Museum.
The trips are an educational exercise to learn about Operation Overlord, the D-Day landings, and the Normandy campaign, part of a study abroad program organized and sponsored by the Clements Center for National Security of the University of Texas at Austin focused on the history of the Anglo-American relationship and the origins of the liberal international order. But the emotional impact can be so strong as to overshadow the academic content of the visit. Students sometimes come away with a feeling of having had a profound experience, but struggling to put it into context or understand how it relates to their studies of the foundations of the liberal international order.
Having done the visit twice, I’ve been able to step back and reflect on what I’d like students — and all visitors — to take away from the visit. The visit is emotional because it focuses intently on violent conflict, but that turns out to be an important part of how the liberal international order was founded, and retelling the story of its founding is an important means of sustaining it.
Why should we visit Normandy?
To understand the tie between political history and military history
The Allies fought the war under the banner of the Atlantic Charter, a founding document of the liberal international order. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and American President Franklin Roosevelt drafted and signed the charter in August 1941. The Atlantic Charter called for self-determination, self-government, free trade, freedom of travel, freedom from violent conflict, and international cooperation. It was eventually endorsed by 47 states by the end of the war through its incorporation into the embryonic United Nations. Its principles shaped the U.N. and the other postwar institutions, including the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and NATO.
The principles of the Atlantic Charter are just words on paper. They are fine words, but they describe a world that did not exist in 1941. Bringing that world into being required the application of massive lethal violence. Political ideas remain ideas unless they are backed by power. They do not win out through bloodless competition in an ethereal marketplace of ideas. Rather, ideas clash backed by political, military, and economic resources. The marketplace of ideas is strewn with the corpses of soldiers.
Democracy is a better idea than fascism, but the liberal international order does not exist because it is a better idea. It exists because the democratic powers built bigger and better guns, killed millions of fascists, overthrew fascist governments, tried and hanged fascist leaders, and liberated or coercively democratized former fascist countries. (Then they fought and won a four-decade-long Cold War against the Soviet Union.) The liberal international order rests on a founding act of violence, of which the Normandy campaign was a crucial part. It was justified, of course, because it was also an act of self-defense against the fascists’ attempts to found their preferred world order on the rest of us.
We can make the same point in a value-neutral sense: You simply cannot be a good historian or political scientist without understanding the linkage between political and military phenomena. To understand the shape of the world around us — including the historically unprecedented rise of democracy, the liberal international order, and the victory of the liberal powers in the Cold War — you have to understand the violent conflicts that brought it into being.
To imagine history at a visceral level
If visiting Normandy was useful merely for learning history, we might as well stay at home and read Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day. Most of the history we learn, we learn from books and teachers. Visiting Normandy (or going on a staff ride, or visiting any historical site) is about soaking up the atmosphere where history happened. It is about developing an historical imagination so that when you return to the books and the classroom, you can appreciate them at a new level.
Visiting Normandy helps students learn to picture history in human terms. Your cerebral cortex can process a battle report about the amphibious landings. But standing in the surf, smelling the salt air, and getting your feet wet while looking with your own eyes at the beaches where the German guns were mounted hits you in the amygdala. You develop a visceral, personal feel for the place. It is sort of terrifying.
Every student has heard of the proverbial fog and friction of war: how everything goes wrong, everything takes longer than planned, and blind luck and chance rule the day. Hearing tour guides point to the exact hill or bunker and narrate who knew what and when, and which commander made a crucial decision and why, puts the student in the middle of the action like no lecture or book could. It helps them understand how human agency makes history.
I watch the students as they walk among the graves at Omaha and Ranville. They look at the dates and work out how young the soldiers were, gasping when they realize some were the same age as they are. The soldiers who stormed the beaches were kids. A few students struggle to hold back tears. They walk away from those graves with a deeper sense of responsibility and a fiercer grasp of their own agency. They feel alive, and they want to do more.
To understand how historical narratives are constructed
During the visits, some of my students asked a sensible question. “Was it really this big a deal?” They are awed by the soldiers’ courage, by the logistical sophistication of the undertaking, and by the sacrifice so many so readily made. But, as good students, they want to know if the Normandy campaign merits the hype.
Normandy is home to a veritable tourism-industrial complex. Our guide told me there are over 80 museums in the region devoted to World War II and that tourism is the region’s third-largest industry. The region is littered with memorials. At Omaha Beach there is a rather unsightly 10th anniversary sandstone obelisk-type monument; just behind it, a gleaming metallic 60th anniversary monument. Plaques, statues, flags, and stones of remembrance freckle the landscape. It’s like Gettysburg (notoriously cluttered with statuary and memorials), but extended throughout an entire region of France.
The Normandy campaign’s status has been further entrenched in our culture through Oscar-winning films from The Longest Day (1961) to Saving Private Ryan (1998), TV shows like Band of Brothers (2001), and even video games like Call of Duty: World War II (2017). There is even a version of The Iliad with a cover photo of the D-Day landings, because that image is the iconic image of wartime heroism in our age.
The focus on Normandy can give the misleading impression that it was the major turning point that won the war or the one great Allied offensive that mattered. The subtitle of Ambrose’s work — “The Climatic Battle of World War II” (emphasis added) — subtly forms this narrative. Stalingrad, Leningrad, the Battle of the Bulge, the Battle of Britain, Guadalcanal, Midway, and the Sicilian and Italian campaigns all shaped the outcome of the war. None of them gets quite the same attention that Normandy does.
As good students of history, however, we should recognize that Normandy was not the war’s single turning point, nor was it solely responsible for the liberal international order. All of the standard single-volume histories of the war, like Martin Gilbert’s or Andrew Roberts’, cover the Normandy campaign but generally do not treat it as the singularly significant inflection point that the tourism-industrial complex implies (which is not to diminish the service of those who fought there).
But there is still a good public policy argument for sustaining this focus on Normandy. We are constantly in the process of appropriating the past to serve our needs in the present. We have collectively chosen the Battle of Normandy to symbolize all the sacrifice and effort required to win the war and secure the peace. The image of a soldier storming a beach is a proxy for every act of courage, daring, and selflessness required to make the world a better place. Building a liberal international order is hard work.
Normandy works well as a stand-in for everything else: The battlefields are easily accessible in a pleasant part of the world, drawing millions of tourists in a convenient and enjoyable setting. The battle was dramatic — the largest amphibious operation in history — but also comprehensible, making it an ideal starting point for civilian students with little background in military history. It is hard to dramatize the siege of Leningrad and hard to even get to a place like Guadalcanal.
Also, Normandy was an Anglo-American-Canadian operation (with a dozen other nations participating in smaller measure). Normandy, unlike the battles of the Eastern Front, can be celebrated as an unequivocal victory for the liberal powers against fascist tyranny. The Normandy-focused version of World War II connects directly with the founding of the liberal international order and its lofty, inspiring principles. We can conveniently, and truthfully, leave the Soviets and their occupation of Eastern Europe out of the story altogether.
When we celebrate Normandy, we are participating in the construction of a narrative, appropriating history for the purposes of the present. The liberal international order is fraying and the transatlantic alliance is under strain. To hold up Normandy is to focus in on the moment the free world stood together, choosing to expend the effort and sacrifice to defeat the enemies of liberalism and construct a freer world.
To be grateful for the world we live in
To call the visit an act of narrative construction is not to say it is false. The Normandy narrative is true, even if a historian would want to balance the story with more attention to other campaigns. And it is a true narrative we need to emphasize and remember and retell, especially today.
The world might have turned out differently. Classical liberalism has enemies and illiberal challengers have mounted repeated efforts to overthrow or subvert the liberal international order. The fascist challenge of World War II was the most violent and powerful, but over the past two and a half centuries there have been challenges from imperial, mercantilist, autarkic, communist, Soviet, jihadist, and nationalist powers across the world.
Nothing in history is inevitable, least of all the victory of liberal norms. Americans without a living memory of the Cold War are prone to take the liberal international order for granted. If you see value in an open society, as opposed to fascism, you have to understand the “blood, toil, sweat, and tears,” required to bring that society into being.
Visiting Normandy is a pilgrimage. It is a journey to honor those who built the world we inherited and from which we benefit and — I hope — an act of rededication to that world. It is hard to walk along the beaches and among the gravestones and not feel some sense of responsibility. The Normandy pilgrimage gives our students a greater sense of responsibility for their world and their role in it. Education has no higher purpose.
Paul D. Miller is the outgoing Associate Director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He will be a professor in the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and co-chair of the Global Politics and Security concentration in the MSFS program this fall. He is also a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.
Image: Paul Miller