The U.S., Britain, Australia, Poland, and numerous other countries are united as one allied force of more than 150,000 troops, prepared for a major assault by air, land, and sea to defeat a dictator known for committing atrocities against his own people and with belligerent ambitions that show no signs of abating.
And while it might sound like Iraq, think again. The conflict was 60 years ago and mission was to defeat Adolf Hitler’s German forces.
On the eve of the anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy, it seems natural to try to compare the invasion of occupied France with the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq.
Yet, as a handful of U.S. veterans from the Normandy invasion explained, there are few parallels between the two undertakings.
As far as they are concerned, World War II represented a unique era because of the very real, palpable, and all-encompassing threat posed by Hitler’s Nazi regime.
By the time the Allies launched their assault on the French coastline, Hitler had already marched clear across Europe and there was no place for him to go, but England. And if England had fallen, history could clearly have taken a different course.
The draft and the rationing of basic foodstuffs and essentials like gasoline made sure that no one — rich or poor — was immune to the sacrifice demanded of all to win the war.
“Had a hell of a time getting off that beach,” recalled Gardner Botsford, 86, who landed as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Intelligence section of the 1st Infantry Division at Omaha Beach on D-Day.
“We were bottled up on that beach for a long time. They were like shooting fish in a barrel,” he said.
Botsford’s memories from Omaha Beach are scant on details, more of a blur of impressions of the hellish day.
"You couldn’t really grasp anything that wasn’t right straight in front of you. What was going on to my right and left, I have no idea. I know where I was and what I was doing, but even that is kind of an in-and-out memory.”
Warren Josephy, 86, captain of the 187th Field Artillery Battalion when he landed at Omaha Beach on June 8, or D-Day plus 2. Josephy described how he could see the action on the beach ahead of the landing, but that nobody was prepared for what was ahead.
“We were told there would be nothing there, but that the German units there were ‘old men and boys on bicycles,’” Josephy said.
Sixty years after Mike DeMartino, 90, landed on Omaha Beach as a member of the military police on D-Day plus 3, he still gets choked up as he describes the death and destruction he witnessed on arriving on Omaha Beach.
"Soldiers were dead all over, no matter where you looked, there were dead. There were arms and legs...”
For all the men involved in the invasion of Normandy at least one thing was clear: the enemy was Germany.
For Botsford, the main difference between then and the current conflict in Iraq is that on D-Day the Germans were a finite enemy.
The indefinite nature of the war on terror and the unpredictability of the situation in Iraq doesn't give the troops the luxury of knowing who exactly they are fighting against.
“D-Day was a big operation against a very well-disciplined and entrenched enemy,” Botsford said. “The division I was in, the first Infantry Division, is in Iraq right now having a terrible time because they don’t know who they’re fighting really.”
DeMartino described the war in Iraq as a “sneaky sort of war” where the danger is heightened because the enemy is not clear.
Cross-section of America in the armed services
Botsford, DeMartino, and Josephy all hail from New York City, but they represent a cross-section of the men that made up the U.S. armed forces during World War II.
Josephy enlisted in the National Guard, an unpaid position at the time, in 1938. But, his unit was mobilized as early as February of 1941 and he became a commissioned officer via a correspondence course once the war began.
Botsford and DeMartino grew up on opposite sides of New York City — Botsford in a townhouse on the privileged Upper East Side and DeMartino in Chelsea where in 1911 his father established “DeMartino’s Fish and Oyster Market” at 8th Avenue and 16th Street.
Both Botsford and DeMartino were drafted into the military in 1942.
Given his highly educated background — Yale graduate, fluent in French, and already a reporter for the New Yorker — Botsford hoped for a plum assignment and was not exactly thrilled with the bureaucratic foul-up that landed him in the infantry, which he described as “not a health-giving place.”
That said, he represented a key example of the democratizing force of the draft.
For Josephy, today's military lacks that cross-section of Americans that was a by-product of the draft and as a result, the lack of involvement diminishes the entire mission in Iraq.
“You can’t have unity now [behind the Iraq war] when the public isn’t participating in the war. There is no draft….So the war is being fought by a professional army,” Josephy said.
For Josephy, the very fabric of the military has changed because, “you don’t get that rich man, poor man, college graduates mixing in with the working guy that you had then.”
Botsford concurred, “There should be a draft. I mean, if we are going to be serious about this military posture we seem to be adopting all over the world. There should be a draft.”
“A good army should have everybody in it, and be leveled out with people who are there, [it is] much more democratic to have a draft. But there never will be a draft again. No Congress would ever pass that idea. But, it would make a better army,” Botsford said.
“The draft was sitting there like a big blanket over everyone,” Botsford said. “But it was there and it meant that your life was going to be a great deal different the minute you got that thing in the mail saying, ‘Greetings.’”
Neither Botsford nor Josephy have any family or friends serving in the current military, but DeMartino has two grandnephews, both graduates of West Point, serving in Iraq. “They are the ones we’re worried about now,” said DeMartino.
Sacrifice felt by all
The draft meant that everyone was involved in the war effort in one way or another because just about everyone had a son, brother, husband, or boyfriend in the war.
That sense of worry about a loved one may have been remote, particularly since there was no television to bring the grisly scenes of war into the living room and the news was censored — but it was there.
Civilians were also directly affected by the severe rationing that was a part of the war effort. People had to get tickets to buy butter, sugar, milk, gasoline, you name it. As a result, a sense of sacrifice was a part of daily life on the home front.
That sense of personal sacrifice seemed to affect the overall morale of the war. Today, “there is no sacrifice. None of us has really had to change our lives at all because of [the war in Iraq],” said Botsford, author of a memoir, “A Life of Privilege, Mostly."
“Does anybody really use less gas so there would be more? No. There are all kinds of things that affect our lives that would help out in this trouble," he said. "But, nobody is really sacrificing anything now, except the poor buggers that are over there. They are. But flying all these flags doesn’t mean one single thing."
For now, as octogenarians, these Normandy veterans are resigned to the fact that it’s not their military anymore and that they have already fought their fight.
Josephy, who won a Silver Star for his service in the war, joked that he successfully completed his job and what ever happened since is not his fault.
“I always tell my family, when I got out of the army in 1945, I left a perfect world. Hitler was dead, Mussolini was dead, Tojo had just been hung. We had peace all over the world," Josephy said.
"What they’ve done with the world since I turned it over to the next generation is not my fault. It was perfect when I left them.”