How many times have I heard an athlete praised for exhibiting courage? This kind of grandiloquence is especially prevalent in football. Numerous awards throughout college and professional football list courage as one of the traits they recognize. It is said it takes courage for a player to play with injuries, and to play through pain. It is said a team shows courage in mounting a game-winning drive in the last minutes. It is said a quarterback displays courage in standing in to throw a pass knowing he is about to be knocked silly by a linebacker.
I would humbly suggest we ought to be more careful in the way we use certain words. The recent movie Saving Private Ryan is one that should be seen by every adult American at least once. The movie depicts the D-Day landings and the kind of action that typified the following days. It is a visceral and brutal homage to the sacrifices made by so many young men in the service of their country. Scenes at the beginning and end of the movie take place in the American cemetery near Colleville-sur-mer. The cemetery sits right on the bluffs above Omaha Beach, looking down on what was Easy Red sector. The name was half right.
My wife and I visited this cemetery a few years ago. What a solemn experience. After leaving the bus in the parking lot, we passed through a protective ring of trees, and there came upon row after row after row of gleaming white crosses and Stars of David. Nearly 10,000 are buried in this cemetery, which is laid out in the form of a Latin cross. The grounds are immaculate. The hedges are neatly trimmed, the grass carefully clipped, the water in the reflecting pool clean. The serene beauty of that hallowed place is a seductive contrast to the unspeakable ugliness that laid those men in their graves.
We walked the paths, and looked down on the beautiful beach, and I thought what a debt we owe. So many of my fellow Americans went through such anguish and terror just to stand where I was standing then. And this cemetery represents just one small corner of the war, the casualties from a few weeks of fighting in NW France. How many other battlefields are there? How many other wars have there been in our history? How many other cemeteries are there that hold the remains of soldiers that fought so I wouldn’t have to? As the vivid colors of the present pale into shades of gray, as memories of the deeds of generations of American soldiers gently fade into the past, may we never take for granted the freedom we enjoy in this country. May we always remember the price so many paid for that freedom.
I don’t deny it takes willpower and discipline for a football player to limp out onto the field with a sprained ankle and play with the pain. But the next time you are on your comfortable couch and you hear such a performance described as courageous, just remember what happened on a Norman beach that Tuesday morning in June 1944.
After hours at sea, thousands of young men climbed over the side of their transports, and in the pitching seas descended into the landing craft. When the boats reached the shore, the ramps went down, and the world those soldiers knew changed forever. Many were shot down before they even left their boats. Many drowned in the ocean under the weight of their equipment. Machine guns, mortar shells, and German artillery turned Omaha Beach into a killing field. Bodies and pieces of bodies were everywhere. Those who saw Omaha later that day said they could almost walk across the beach without touching the sand.
But those who survived the initial hell made their way across the beach to take shelter at the seawall and beneath the cliffs. Wet, cold, many of them wounded, without a coherent command structure, the broken bodies of their comrades and brothers all around; those soldiers could have given up. They didn’t. In small groups they blew holes in the wire, made their way through minefields, climbed the bluffs and secured the beachhead.