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Christmas break, my sophomore year in college, I went to England and France with my brother, my dad, and my dad’s new girlfriend. If the traveling party seemed a little uncomfortable – well, free trip to Europe. The trip featured just about what you’d expect from a trip to Europe in late December. Cold, dank, miserable weather. A lack of crowds. A lack of things that were open. And of course, in true Clark Griswold fashion, my dad insisted on wearing a beret. (I was past the age of being mortified by him, and well into the age of being constantly irritated with him. I could go on, but you’re not my therapist). Our excursion is mostly memorable for the low points. The bleak melancholy of a post-Christmas, wintry London. New Year’s Eve spent in a slummy motel outside Paris, with no booze and no television. My dad’s beret. The high point, at least for me, was our trip to Normandy. Because it was off-season, Bordeaux felt deserted. We stayed in one of the few hotels taking lodgers. We drove to the D-Day landing beaches on empty roads. The weather was bone-achingly cold, and charmed by wind-whipped sleet. When he walked onto Omaha Beach, near Colleville-sur-Mer, we experienced something quite unexpected: solitude. We were absolutely alone on one of the most famous battlefields in human history.**The beach seemed remarkably small, an effect perhaps heightened by the position of the tide. Even allowing for that, it was sometimes hard to imagine the epic struggle that took place on this sand, amid the grass-swept dunes and craggy heights. The fates of nations balanced here one day – I thought it would be bigger. You don’t really understand the titanic nature of the battle until you climb the bluffs overlooking Omaha and reach the American cemetery (a French concession, over-flown by the American flag and administered by the United States). There, 9,000 crosses and Stars of David lay before you in terrible, beautiful symmetry. Standing there, alone in the rain, was an impressive experience that ranks high among the historical pilgrimages I’ve made. You think you know 9,000; then you see it spread before you in mathematically precise rows. The dead who lay beneath white stone did not all fall during the first day of the D-Day invasion. Despite the triumphal images associated with the landings (and the triumphalism of, for example, Cornelius Ryan’s classic The Longest Day), World War II did not end on the evening of June 6, 1944. In terms of blood, it really began. Antony Beevor’s D-Day: The Battle for Normandy tells the story of D-Day and the many hard days after. Its focus can be found in its subtitle: the ferocious inland push against a determined German foe. The American and British contributions to World War II have long been denigrated vis-à-vis the contributions made by the Soviet Union. Contrarians love to point out how the USSR fought bigger battles, lost more men, and drained the Third Reich like an enormous leech. Russia’s contribution to Allied victory can’t be overstated (though it’s helpful to remember that they were as awful as the Nazis in almost every way). But as Beevor points out, in statistical, per capita terms, the fighting in Normandy was as costly and vicious as the battles in the East.D-Day: The Battle for Normandy is a sturdy, well-constructed history. I’ve read Beevor’s Stalingrad and sensed a vague disjointedness to the narrative. That is not an issue here. This book is straightforward, chronological, and thorough. Though the book’s focal point is not simply the landing, Beevor still gives it an extended look, with individual chapters devoted to the airborne drops, and each of the beach assaults (Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno, and Sword). Though the subject is well-trod, Beevor attempts to present different viewpoints than those already published. (The amazing thing I’ve recognized in reading a wide variety of D-Day books is that there are enough anecdotes to fuel a thousand books without using the same ones twice).Once the beachhead is established, the book follows the American forces as they moved west along the Cotentin Peninsula, and the British under Bernard Montgomery, as they struggle to take Caen in the east. Hard fighting follows among the hedgerows, at Saint-Lô, and in the Falaise Pocket. Beevor ends his tale with the liberation of Paris. Intermixed with the military history are sharp character sketches and fascinating side conversations that cover varied topics, such as P.O.W. treatment, war crimes, and the conundrum that was the French. There is also a chapter devoted to the July 20th plot against Adolf Hitler. I enjoyed seeing this oft-told event placed in its wider context. It was not simply a move by patriotic Germans who wanted to rid themselves of an obvious evil; it was a reaction to Hitler’s glaringly poor responses to the Allied invasion. When you read a lot of World War II books, you start to notice an odd tension: near-constant criticism of Allied forces coupled with grudging (and sometimes not-so-grudging) admiration of the fighting capabilities of the Wehrmacht. This manifests itself in severe critiques of the martial abilities of men like Montgomery, Dwight Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley. The oddness, of course, is that the Allies won the war, with this reality attributed to some vaguely defined inevitability. A great example of this is the Falaise Pocket. This was an envelopment of Germany Army Group B (which Hitler had not allowed to retreat) by converging American and British forces. By any measure, it was a great Allied victory: many Germans were killed; many more were captured. But Allied actions at the Pocket are often criticized because not enough Germans were killed; not enough were captured. To be sure, Beevor has some harsh words for many of the Allies, particularly Montgomery (whose reputation was always questioned, but who has taken an even more severe beating in the postwar years). But Beevor, unlike, say, Max Hastings, is more charitable in his observations, and more cognizant that war is an imperfect practice, and that battles are not fought on maps, with pushpins, but on physical terrain, amongst human beings. Beevor is a well-respected historian of World War II. When you read one of his books, you know you are in good hands. He is not as beautiful a writer or as gifted a storyteller as Rick Atkinson, who recently covered this same time period in his magisterial The Guns at Last Light. He also does not have the acid tongue or contrarian instincts of Max Hastings. This is not a criticism, by any means, since Atkinson and Hastings are two of the best. But it is a way of saying that Beevor – in terms of literary merit, at least – works with a lower ceiling.With that said, Beevor is one of the best, and he does a wonderful job of covering all the days after “the longest day.” **Since this experience, off-holiday vacations have become an obsession with me. I strive to avoid crowds by going places at the time of year that the least number of people are visiting. So, not only are we constantly traveling to distant battlefields, but the weather is always terrible. Needless to say, this will likely become a separate article in the divorce proceedings my wife eventually files against me.

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