There are 9,387 crosses and Stars of David arranged with military precision on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. Buried in this hallowed American ground are 45 sets of brothers, four women, a father laid to rest alongside his son, three Medal of Honor recipients, and two sons of President Theodore Roosevelt.
Along with thousands of others, they paid the price, between 1941 and 1945, for America to help bring stability and peace to a world that without our leadership would have succumbed to unimaginable evil.
Last month, I had the privilege of paying my respects to those resting eternally at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial during a wreath-laying ceremony that included the playing of our national anthem and “Taps.” As I looked over the rows of crosses and stars, I tried to put into today’s context the greater meaning of the tremendous sacrifice displayed before me.
They fought because the world needs an America willing to lead. The Greatest Generation, those men who took up arms to liberate countries they had never visited and risked their lives for people they had never met, recognized in American exceptionalism the responsibility to lead, to help, to guard.
Today’s America cannot retreat from the world stage and extricate itself from the many challenges our globe faces. We need to be the leader in a global order based on democratic values, alliances of like-minded partners, the rule of law and the opportunity to prosper. We need to stand up to autocratic despots across the globe who abuse human rights at home and undermine democracy abroad. “America First” and an American-led world order are not mutually exclusive concepts and, in a world that is experiencing more and more destabilization, America must embrace its global responsibility rather than retreat from it.
They fought not just for peace abroad, but for the freedoms we take for granted here at home. Freedom of speech means that the very ideology that machine-gunned them as they ran across the beaches of Normandy can now hold rallies across the street from the White House. I wish white supremacists would return to the rocks from under which they crawled instead of feeling emboldened to spread their message of hate and ignorance. But in a truly free society, they should have the right to engage in a clash of ideas, in which reason, intellect and simple common decency will always prevail. And if we extend this basic right to someone as abhorrent as a neo-Nazi, how can we have any doubt that an athlete kneeling during the national anthem is permissible in our free society?
They fought because service to country is an integral part of America’s DNA. Through my work with Former Members of Congress, I have had the honor to meet some of those who, following their service in uniform, continued to serve their country on Capitol Hill. Bob Michel of Illinois was in the infantry and stormed the beaches on June 6. Sam Gibbons of Florida parachuted into Normandy as part of the famed 101st Airborne. Bob Dole of Kansas was a young officer in the 10th Mountain Division and George McGovern of South Dakota flew almost two dozen combat missions as a B-24 Liberator pilot.
This only names a few of the many who bravely fought for their country and later served in our nation’s capital. They saw dignity in public service, and answering the call to arms in World War II naturally translated into leading our nation through peacetime. Their experience made it implausible to put party over country, and while they were vehement political beings, moving the country forward always took precedence over scoring political victory. On Aug. 7, 1974, Barry Goldwater, John Rhodes and Hugh Scott, convinced an embattled Richard Nixon that, for the good of the country, he had to resign the presidency. All three were leaders in the House and Senate, all three were Republicans and all three had served their country in uniform during World War II.
The 9,387 names etched on crosses and stars represent a tiny fraction of the spilled blood needed to defeat a world order diametrically opposed to our democratic values. What does their sacrifice stand for today, a lifetime later, a lifetime they never had? For me, standing in that cemetery in France, it reaffirmed that the greatness of America is, in part, founded upon our commitment to be a source and a defender of stability in this world, our willingness to defend freedoms that many other nations deny their citizens, and the unconquerable strength we attain when letting that which unites us overpower those who seek to divide us.
• Peter Weichlein is CEO of the Association of Former Members of Congress (FMC).