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Commemorate or forget: Do we care enough about D-Day?

  • 18 June 2024
I wonder how many Australians were captivated, as was I, by the 80th anniversary D-Day celebrations? They seemed epochal to me: a reminder of something remarkable and a pointer to something possible, namely new resolve to maintain peace in Europe. Not too many Australians, as it turned out, were similarly mesmerised. Television and radio interest (including from my own ABC) focussed on rather limited news bulletin coverage of the highly emotive events near the French landing beaches and at Portsmouth, the giant fleet’s departure point, where King Charles spoke movingly, as did Presidents Biden, Macron and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin at the US cemetery in Colleville sur Mer.

Some of our commercial channels sourced aging Australians who’d played some role. But where were the special documentary programmes that I’d imagine we’d see? Where was the effort to source some of the cinematic classics, like Darryl F Zanuck’s The Longest Day? Did programmers assume there’d be no interest? Are they right about my fellow Australians’ interest or lack thereof? Maybe they are? Maybe it seems simply too remote?

I had to rely on BBC World and other international outlets to glimpse the drama of remembering, brokered by ceremonies on Normandy’s broad beaches, haunted by the ghosts of fallen men and the tangible relics of deadly German coastal guns. The passionate speeches proved this was no ordinary memorial event. It spurred various leaders and guests to think anew and out loud about the scale of peace-making in our era: what it might ask of us, modern, cossetted citizens, accustomed to the tranquility of pretty assured peace over decades?

So does all this D-Day remembering resemble a cadaver from a former era, just another ‘epic battle’ that seems irrelevant to our turbulent modern world? Is it because we Australians were essentially not there: only thirteen Australian servicemen were killed on D-Day though some Australians reporters, like Chester Wilmot became legendary.

Of course our war was centred a long way away, in the Pacific. But the sheer scale of the human story on that June 6  in France takes my breath away: the ambition of it, the bravery, the tragedy, the exquisite planning, the monumental risks, let alone the characters, including Dwight Eisenhower, General Montgomery, Teddy Roosevelt Junior, determined to lead his men onto the Utah beaches despite being 56 years old, the wildly idiosyncratic Scottish commando Lord Lovat, together with his faithful piper Billin striding across Pegasus Bridge,