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James T. KeaneJune 04, 2024
U.S. troops wade ashore at Omaha Beach on D-Day (Robert F. Sargent/Wikimedia Commons)

This Thursday marks the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings at Normandy. On that day, more than 150,000 Allied soldiers went ashore in France to begin a “second front” in Europe that would help speed along the Second World War and the eventual downfall of the Axis Powers. Over 4,000 ships, 10,0000 planes and three million service personnel were involved in Operation Overlord. More than 30,000 soldiers died in the invasion, including almost 5,000 U.S. troops. The last survivors of that invasion are approaching their 100th year.

“D-Day is fast receding into the pages of history; there are not many left today who actually served in that engagement and in that war,” wrote Joe McAuley in a 2014 reflection on the 70th anniversary in America. “But today, we must pause and think about the bravery and sacrifice, nobility and aspirations of all those young men (some were boys, really) who answered an unbelievable call. Many of those soldiers, with hopes for the future, went out toward a terrible fate that was theirs in order to ensure the present that is ours.”

Harold C. Gardiner, S.J., the literary editor of America at the time, commented on the invasion in the issue of June 17, 1944. Gardiner noted that when President Franklin D. Roosevelt went on the radio the night of D-Day, “an event unique in modern history took place”—a head of state led an entire nation in prayer. “The only fear we may entertain, the only proviso we can suggest is that D-Day’s prayers must not have been a bloom that fades over night,” Gardiner wrote. “Every day, till the final victory, must continue to be a day of prayer—the same confident, humble prayer even through the dark days that may, in God’s Providence, still come.”

In an editorial in the same issue noting that D-Day took place on the Feast of St. Boniface (it didn’t), America editors cautioned that the invasion augured victory but did not guarantee it:

We have the power in men and things and we have the determination in our souls to finish the ghastly job that we began on June 5 and 6 But we cannot cloak the fact that there are master minds directing the enemy operations, that there are scientists and workers fabricating the enemy war machines, that there are seasoned and desperate fighting men intent on the death of our men and the destruction of our equipment.
Furthermore, we must dearly understand that the German home front is still sturdy and strong. According to the best indications, it will not crack easily. The unconditional surrender of Germany will be made in God's good time, but until then we must prepare ourselves to live through some tragic and sad days.

Indeed, millions more soldiers and civilians would be lost, most of them on the deadly Eastern Front, before Germany surrendered in May 1945. Throughout that final year of war in Europe, America followed events closely with a weekly “The Nation at War” column and frequent other essays. In a review of the events of 1944 in the final issue of that year, longtime editor Benjamin L. Masse, S.J., wrote of the efforts on the “home front” to support the war, but also noted that “most of the headlines during 1944 were about battle lines”:

We hailed the exploits of the young men who fought and died on land and sea and in the air. We cheered the grizzled men who led them: Eisenhower, Nimitz, Halsey, MacArthur and many another. On the nation's battle-flags, alongside Yorktown, Gettysburg, the Marne and Belleau Woods, we inscribed new names breathing heroism and sacrifice—Tarawa, Saipan, Leyte, Anzio, Normandy and a dozen more. These were the men, these the deeds, we featured on our front pages. No one wanted it otherwise.

While America has reviewed many historical analyses and biographies of the soldiers and statesmen involved in D-Day over the years (including a review last month of Hitler’s American Gamble), the magazine didn’t go anywhere near many of the novels about soldiers that were published after the war. I suspect this was due in part to a shift in literary conventions that allowed more explicit sex, violence and profanity in postwar mainstream fiction. It’s hard, after all, to tell a generation that saw the Holocaust, the bombings of Coventry and Dresden and Tokyo, and the destruction of entire cities with atomic bombs that they need to be protected from immoral literature.

Gardiner and his successors more or less ignored books like Norman Mailer’s best-selling 1948 attempt to be World War II’s Hemingway, The Naked and The Dead. (They weren’t alone: Mailer’s magnum opus was banned in Australia and Canada, and his initial publisher, Little, Brown, turned it down because of its excessive profanity.) Joseph Heller’s 1961 masterpiece Catch-22 also found no mention in America until 1968, when its anti-war themes struck more of a chord. Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 Slaughterhouse-Five received a long review, but by then literary standards had changed again—and the United States was embroiled in yet another war.

The passage of time means that most of us now envision D-Day through the lens of movies or television. Scenes from “Saving Private Ryan” and “Band of Brothers” have replaced newsreels as our collective memory of that day in June 1944. But any treatment of such a historic moment must be careful with the details and reverent even to a fault, as America film critic Moira Walsh noted in her 1962 review of “The Longest Day,” a movie based on Cornelius Ryan’s 1959 book by the same name.

“It is quite possible to pick all sorts of holes in this quasi-documentary account of D-Day. Understandably, the picture is uneven. But it was an extraordinarily difficult undertaking,” Walsh wrote. “The fact that it holds one’s attention for three hours, excites pity and terror and awe and leaves one—some, anyway—feeling ‘Yes, this is the way D-Day was’ is indicative of the enormous skill and ‘Know-how’ that obviously went into its making.”

“It is nearly a great film. Had it not been, it would have been impossibly bad.”

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is “Brotherhood,” by Leath Tonino. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

Also, news from the Catholic Book Club: We have a new selection! We are reading Norwegian novelist and 2023 Nobel Prize winner Jon Fosse’s multi-volume work Septology. Click here to buy the book, and click here to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

What’s all the fuss about Teilhard de Chardin?

Moira Walsh and the art of a brutal movie review

​​Who’s in hell? Hans Urs von Balthasar had thoughts.

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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