Some days do matter more than others. Like today, June 6, 69 years ago:
If you ever get a chance to visit the Normandy beaches, take it. When you make it past the American cemetery, go down to the beach, turn around so the ocean's at your back, and then look up. As galvanizing as this photo is (and it is iconic), nothing brings it home like being there.
And as riveting as Saving Private Ryan is, being there is different.
13 years ago I went there, having seen earlier in May the British celebrate the 60th anniversary of the 1940 Dunkirk evacuations. Most of the WWII histories will make the same point: the astonishing reversal the Allies experienced, going from fleeing continental Europe on fishing vessels and motorboats to, four years later, the largest amphibious invasion ever. Less than a year later, the Allies and the Soviets stood victorious--and already conspiring about the other's intentions.
All won at the hands of the guys pictured above who, when the gate dropped, walked forward and started wading..
I stood on the beach, looked up and marveled at it. Feelings similar to visiting the Copse of Trees at Gettysburg or my first view of St. Peter's Basilica -- actually standing at such a historic place and realizing it--can be overwhelming.
There are some times and places that matter more. Of course, along the edges of the beaches, even in 2000, beachside vacation cabins encroached, just like the tourist knickknack shops along the Via della Conciliazione or the Civil War memorabilia shops in Gettysburg. So it is possible, given inclination, perhaps age (I'll admit I didn't "get" Gettysburg when I first saw it as a high school senior), and historical/spiritual (un)awareness, to see great places and shuffle along unmoved.
Kind of like when AJ Soprano went to Washington DC.
That being said, could the success of D-Day--and the Allied effort in WWII--have unintentionally poisoned the West's (and especially the United States') view of warfare ever since? No other fight, not even the pursuit of Osama bin Laden (and, yes, Zero Dark Thirty is really that good), has measured up to the moral clarity WWII enjoyed. Undergraduate students confronting Just War Theory for the first time get it; no other conflict so clearly meets the criteria. Even the 9/11 attacks, more than a decade later, don't convince as they once did. Eight years of war in Iraq--a conflict most of my students readily supported at first, only to sour on it just months later when it became obvious there was more to do than simply declare victory and leave--and over a decade of war in Afghanistan seems to have wearied them...and us. Vietnam, obviously, didn't help either, forming the "let's not get too involved" narrative for my generation and the one preceding.
Instead, through no fault of its own, obviously, D-Day represents an unattainable gold standard--but one that gets used readily in daily political, cultural, and strategic conversation. If it's not a war like WWII, where we know who we're fighting and why, then it can't be done.
To some degree contemporary interpretations, which read the criteria very literally (not at all how the Bible's read!) of the Just War Theory make this argument. No war measures up, and certainly not a global war on terror.
Furthermore, on a tactical level, D-Day represents the last, best good example of amphibious invasions. Yes, there have some since, especially the U.S. Marines landing at Inchon in 1950. Modern warfare technology--radar, missile range and accuracy--make amphibious landings even more harrowing than 1944. If one takes a strict counterinsurgency view of contemporary warfare--where operations take amorphous shape with few clear 'front' and 'rear' lines and blurred distinction between military and civilian personnel--one might even question if amphibious operations like D-Day will ever be needed again. That hasn't stopped the U.S. Marine Corps, which shapes itself as precisely an amphibious, littoral force.
None of this is to suggest that D-Day was some sort of battleground dinosaur or that those who died did so in vain. As I said above, the beaches remain a powerful reminder of what was accomplished. But time does pass, and among the freedoms secured that day include both the theoretical and practical reconsideration of other ways to wage wars--fights that are regrettably necessary.