Sunday, June 29, 2008


Among the pictures in my uncle's packet of photos that he traded cigarettes for on the beaches of D-Day are a few like this one above.

If you start at Omaha Beach in Normandy and walk straight inland, you soon come to the town of Saint-Lô.

Which is pretty much what the U.S. Army did in 1944.

But before it could do that, it had to disable Saint-Lô as a German command and supply center and as a key transport junction. Which meant it had to bomb the hell out of it at the moment the invasion began. With only the most cryptic prior warning to the resistance, and none to the general population.

Now, imagine what al-Jazeera or BBC or CNN would do with this:

Mr. Leclerc was called by a young boy, whose brother and sister were buried under their house. "We dig through stones, bricks, earth, clothes, things. We throw mementos at the feet of the mother, who collects them in a neat little pile. It goes on for hours, and night falls. Some men leave, to go across the street, there are six victims under the ruins, a whole family. We find the remains of a bed, the boy's bed, empty. We keep looking ... What for? There can only be squashed bodies in there, under such a mass of burnt beams, collapsed walls and plaster dust. Then, suddenly, a hand touches something soft. It is tiny, and warm. We dig deeper, faster, half an hour more, and now, a muted yell. We find the foot, the leg, blood. At last, we retrieve the little mass of living flesh, covered with dust. Now, the only light comes from the fires. The little boy is still in there. We go back to work. A new miracle, a cry :"Mommy". He wants to cry, he does not understand. "What happened?" A priest, his black habit covered with white dust passes by on his way to the hospital, we give him the little girl, he takes her in his arms. She is dead."


From the shelter of his barn, Mr. Herpin saw the "bombed out" arrive at the farm, "absolute ghosts barely able to stand on their broken limbs; their faces pale and scarred, their eyes staring into space, their hair plastered with dust. Their clothes, when they have any left, are torn, they are covered with bloody wounds. And above all, I remember that awful impression of seeing fellow human beings, acquaintances, friends, so deprived of everything, so humiliated, so broken, from whom all dignity had been stolen, brought down to the level of exhausted beasts .... And yet we are seeing only the lucky ones, those who, against all hope, were able to escape being crushed or burnt to death. There are nearly no complete families: here, it is a mother with her child, there a grandmother and her grandson, or a father alone. Some speak with their eyes down, and, listening to them, one can guess at the tragedy of that night: the race to the shelter, the awful [con]flagration, the screams of the wounded and of the dying, the exits buried, the holes one digs with bare hands, and then, the escape amongst the ruins and the corpses, and the profound joy of being alive, even though everything is lost. Most, though, are silent, vanquished by the pain and the memory of the terror they just lived through. They lie on the ground, in the dirt, and they beg for water."

Surely, today, they would have been there, cameras at the ready. They would have been broadcasting all along, and been able to show the peaceful life in the sleepy French town under German occupation, and how Allied bombs shattered it. They would not have been allowed to broadcast locals being shipped off to slave labor camps, but they wouldn't have minded that and no one would have much complained. How can you complain about what you don't see?

When we were looking through the shoebox of photos and that one at the top of the post came out, my uncle explained the story of the bombing of Saint-Lô and its strategic importance. If it wasn't for the slaughter of that town, they might never have got off that beach. If life is often a choice between bad and worse options, war always is.

Arthur Miller wrote that Ernie Pyle "told as much of what he saw as people could read without vomiting." Today? No civilized people can stand a war for long, in the age of the television camera. No civilized people who can see it will stay in a war.

But uncivilized people certainly will.