We’d been given color-coded badges by the Defense Department, green for an ordinary guest, other colors for vets, their escorts, family members, press and VIPs. There was a lot of confusion and vets bereft of the passes they were due wandered uneasily, a bit lost, jostled by crowds of pushful youngsters. DoD had invited something like 14,000 people for some 8000 seats, and the resulting snafu produced a sea of seats in the mid-range held empty by the MPs, while some of the bewildered early-arrived vets were herded into the back rows. When order finally collapsed, the younger, late-arriving crowd surged forward, shoving past the survivors and grabbing the seats closer to the podium from which Bush and Chirac would recite their pieties. The mana in the space seemed to radiate from the place Bush would occupy-to be closer to that space was somehow to win something, to suck up some of the celebrity the American president incarnated, or which emanated from any media-attended decennial anniversary. Two middle-aged men behind me speculated enviously on the joys of keeping thousands waiting for many hours, forcing them through laborious and invasive layers of security, only to land by helicopter, descending like a god: “what an ego trip!” From where we sat, the flat-screen TVs were hard to see in the blinding sunlight, and Chirac’s voice, over the loudspeakers, was a bit hard to hear: a torrent of jamais, but I couldn’t tell what he was jamais-ing about: “we shall never forget,” I think, but there were some other possibilities. Still, all the bustling vulgarity in the world couldn’t make the occasion farcical, and it is impossible to strip the American cemetery at Omaha Beach of power and dignity. That chivvying, mind-
less competition for physical proximity to celebrity arguably came as close as one could, but no cigar. To a sufficiently cold and severe moral imagination, Verdun can be merely a monument to cruelty and error and folly-sacrifice alone does not gild slaughter-but Omaha Beach is not, and cannot be. The combination of necessary means and urgent ends defeats any effort to mute the significance of what happened there, and even fairly cranky Europeans seemed to know it. And the moments of real imaginative or physical proximity to what happened sixty years ago were eerily potent.