A Quaker on Omaha Beach

I was the lone Quaker on Omaha Beach, one of the Allied Powers’ landing sites in Normandy on D-Day. I know this because my non-Quaker friend and I were the only people on the entire Omaha Beach that morning last year.

Like another early morning some 60 years before, it was low tide and the remains of a low front passed from sea to land. Unlike June 6, 1944, the beach was now free of mines and murderous impediments. There was only one boat in the distance, unlike that morning long ago when the first of more than 5,000 ships came into view on the horizon. No longer were 85 German machine guns and dozens of pre-sighted artillery pieces ready to turn the beach into a killing floor. This morning was quiet and peaceful.

On that beach 60 years ago tens of thousands of men willingly committed what was left of their young lives to rid the world of an evil presence that might not have been vanquished without U.S. help. I have the utmost respect for those millions of men and women who helped win the war, my father and father-in-law among them.

As a believer in nonviolence, I struggle with the notion of war as a viable means of resolving conflict. Sometimes countries go to war too quickly. Violence should be a last resort, not the first one. But I have my limits. I know myself well enough to be clear that if my family were threatened, I would hurt the aggressor before I would let the aggressor hurt my family. For me, then, if ever there were a war worth fighting, it would have been World War II.

Omaha Beach was a good place to ponder this conundrum. Standing on the beach, I considered the spectrum of belief from making peace to making war, from nonviolence to aggression.

Real warriors seldom talk of their experiences; and when they do, it speaks volumes. To the contrary, the least knowledgeable among us seem to wave the biggest flags or the biggest protest signs. Tunesmiths profit from patriotic songs, inciting a simplistic view of war that doesn’t say much about its consequences. Mark Twain understood that when you pray for victory, you pray for untold suffering to be visited upon others. In "War Prayer," he wrote, "Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of . . . Him who is the source of love."

A friend of mine was an original member of "Easy Company," 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne. He nearly gave his life on D-Day. He was severely wounded in Holland, and he had a leg blown off during the Battle of the Bulge. I take note when he says, as he once did on National Public Radio, "I know what war is and I try to teach other people: Stay away from war. There’s never a winner in war. The winners lose and the losers lose. War is hell, period."

Dwight D. Eisenhower, the D-Day commander who sent my friend and many others into battle, would say while he was president: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children."

Ike’s speech followed in the tradition of other presidents who knew war. Abraham Lincoln said, "There’s no honorable way to kill, no gentle way to destroy. There is nothing good in war. Except its ending."

What can we learn from this? To listen carefully to those who speak from experience, and understand the motivations and the biases of all sides, particularly those who profit monetarily or politically from conflict.

The goal of eradicating aggression from our species is unrealistic; but delaying and defusing individual conflicts is achievable and realistic. On a larger scale, war delayed is war averted, even if only for a day. It should be the aim of each of us—if you believe those most familiar with war.