What D-Day Means for America Today

Remembering what helped the Allies win World War II can help us overcome our current challenges.

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Ducks (amphibious trucks) and a half-track follow foot troops ashore during the invasion of Normandy on a 100-mile front along the French coast by allied forces on June 6, 1944. This was a turning point for the Allies in World War II, known as D-Day.

Nicholas Dungan is a Senior Fellow in the Program on Transatlantic Relations of the Atlantic Council in Washington DC and a Senior Advisor to the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris.

Omaha Beach, Utah, Gold, Juno, Sword. Operations Overlord, Neptune, Bodyguard, Glimmer. Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Charles de Gaulle. General Dwight David Eisenhower, General Bernard Montgomery, General Omar Bradley. Caen, Sainte Mère Eglise, Pointe du Hoc.

These are the words of D-Day.

One hundred sixty thousand soldiers landing in Normandy, 200,000 seamen, 7,000 ships, 24,000 airborne troops, 12,000 aircraft. These are the figures of D-Day.

D-Day, June 6th, 1944 , represents the largest sea, land and air operation ever undertaken in the history of mankind. It marked the beginning of the end of Nazi tyranny across Europe, the victorious turning point of the Allies in the Second World War.

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But what's the difference that D-Day makes to us, today? In truth, whether or not D-Day makes a difference depends upon our desire for remembrance and our determination for renewal.

Remembrance is more than random memory or routine commemoration. Remembrance is the willful, thoughtful act of recollection: premeditated, planned and pondered. Remembrance is at the heart of spiritual life and religious ceremony. At the center of the Christian communion stands the Lord's command: "Do this in remembrance of me." Remembrance Sunday in Britain every November is the solemn observance of the sacrifice of all its soldiers in all its wars.

In recent years, France has sought out American veterans, especially veterans of D-Day, and decorated them with the country's highest form of recognition, the Legion of Honor. In deeply moving ceremonies held across the United States, French diplomats have pinned the medal on the breasts of those men who landed on D-Day in their teens and twenties and are now in their eighties and nineties.

In some of these ceremonies the citations of their bravery have been read by schoolchildren, evidence of the vow that "France Will Never Forget."

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Remembrance serves to reaffirm the values for which the veterans of D-Day fought and, in some cases, died: self-sacrifice, duty, comradeship. They were defending the freedom we enjoy today. With that freedom goes the responsibility for us to pursue not just remembrance, but renewal.

This is no longer an era of wars of civilizations, or so we hope. Although we may not need to attain victory as our forefathers did, we none the less need to ensure that our countries and our societies achieve success in our time. Being successful countries and societies in the twenty-first century requires that we strengthen our competitiveness – not just to sharpen our economic edge, but to enhance the quality of life of our people and the model of civilized societies that our western democracies ought to embody.

To do this, we must recognize the comparative competitiveness shortcomings that we have allowed to build up – in the United States, for example, in the cost and quality of healthcare, the state of our infrastructure and our governance gridlock. And we must acknowledge that while Americans may have much to teach others, there is much that the United States can learn from others, and not just from those who threaten us but from those who are our allies and our friends. France, where the D-Day landings occurred, stands far ahead of the United States in the use of safe nuclear energy, water management and early education, while France's weaknesses match American strengths in entrepreneurship, information technology and public-private collaboration on research.

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At the same time, we need to ask whether the sources of competitiveness that have made us successful in the past genuinely offer the opportunity to secure our competitiveness in the future. Will the vast structural networks required in energy or environmental projects, for example, be capable of replacement via nanotechnology, smart systems in buildings, or remote medical treatment, or education?

What security was in the twentieth century, success will be in the twenty-first. Our commitment in our era to build successful societies, successful countries and a successful civilization that honor the values of D-Day – self-sacrifice, duty, comradeship – will respect the requirement for remembrance of the past and serve as a source of renewal for the future.

For the answer to the question "What's the difference that D-Day makes?" depends on our capacity for remembrance and renewal, this year and in every year to come.

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