From Chicken Soup for the Soul of America

Hope from Abroad

You cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world. .

. . We are not a nation, so much as a world.

Herman Melville

Omaha Beach, France. We’d spent most of the day on the road and had just sat down for a late dinner—8:30 P.M. in France, 4:30 P.M. in New York—when we heard the news.

The couple at the table next to us was from Ireland, and when they recognized our accents—we were, I believe, the only Americans in the seafront restaurant—the man asked if we knew.

Knew what?

And so it began for us: two Americans learning that more than 5,000 people back home had been murdered by terrorists.

Two Americans lost in the atrocities of the past—we were researching World War II for a book I’m writing—suddenly confronted with an atrocity of the present.

Two Americans who, for the next week, would be buffered—and frustrated—by being an ocean away from a homeland in mourning.

What a strange juxtaposition: to be listening to the waves wash ashore at Normandy, where fifty-seven years before, Allied troops stormed ashore to liberate northern Europe from the grasp of Germany—and, at the same time, watching CNN images of the World Trade Center collapsing after being attacked by terrorists.

Evil, I was reminded, never goes away. It simply lurks in the shadows of time, morphs to fit the technological advances and springs on another generation. Hitler, bin Laden—the monsters change, the methods change, but the madness that motivates them does not.

Earlier that day, we’d walked through the preserved ruins of a French village, Oradour-Sur-Glane. There, on June 10, 1944, its few hundred residents—like millions of New Yorkers on September 11, 2001—awoke to a place of peace and prosperity. But with the same suddenness as the attack on the World Trade Center, German troops rolled into town and massacred virtually everyone: men, women and children.

By the end of the day, 642 lay dead and the village had been burned to its stone foundations.

“Man’s inhumanity to man,” I heard a man mutter after witnessing the chilling remains of the village, eerily replete with everything from charred dishes to children’s bikes.

The next morning—the day after we’d heard the news from home—we walked among the 9,386 graves at the American Military Cemetery above Omaha Beach.

Chimes played “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.” American and French flags, both at half-staff, fluttered in the brisk breeze. And on the beach below, a couple of sand yachts slalomed beside surf once colored with blood.

Now came news of more blood following an attack that, unlike the Normandy invasion, wasn’t done to liberate the oppressed, but to oppress the liberated.

Not until we placed a phone call home did we realize the scope of the terrorist attack. We were traveling France’s back roads and didn’t see English newspapers and English TV broadcasts until days later.

In a sense, the language barrier protected us from the pain; we weren’t barraged, as others were, with constant news reports. Nor, because of the language difference, were we conversing with others about what had happened.

And yet, being thousands of miles away from our friends, family and community also meant a strange sense of disconnectedness tinged with guilt. No matter how far off the beaten path we ventured, sometimes on roads not much wider than our rented Renault, the news from home stalked us.

Meanwhile, though, we sensed that America’s pain was Europe’s pain. While we were at a D-Day museum, a British schoolmaster cautioned his students to treat Americans with extra respect because of what had happened. On back roads in Luxembourg, the country’s flags hung from windows, tied with black “mourning” bands. Once, not far from where Allied troops fought German troops in the bitter Battle of the Bulge, we came across a memorial for the 80th Infantry. It overlooked a beautiful valley and was anchored by two flags, both half-staffed: an American flag and a Luxembourg flag.

We couldn’t help but notice the Stars and Stripes had, in the heavy wind, ripped loose from one of its two grommets. It was flying wildly out of control—and yet with a certain amount of tenacity, battered but not beaten, like the country itself.

Finally, on a drizzly Saturday, not far from Liege, Belgium, and the German border, we scanned the white markers of yet another American military cemetery, where more than 7,000 U.S. soldiers had been buried. As I looked at the sea of white crosses and Star of David symbols, I couldn’t help but think this was roughly the number of people who had died in the terrorist attacks.

It left me feeling despondent, contrasting the pain of the past with the pain of the present. Would we ever get beyond man’s humanity to man? Hadn’t the world learned anything in the last half-century-plus?

But just when I had resigned myself to a bleak world in which nobody seemed to care about one another, an incident whispered hope to me.

I’d been interviewing the cemetery’s supervisor—the subject of a book I’m writing was once buried on these grounds—when a man with a handful of daisies poked his head in the door.

He was roughly the same age that many of these U.S. soldiers from World War II would have been had they lived. He was German. He spoke little English. And he was, I discerned, seeking a vase.

“Who are the flowers for?” asked the supervisor.

“For New York,” he said, “and Washington.”

Bob Welch

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