Thursday, August 16, 2007

American Hajj

Charles Krohn, deputy director of public affairs for the American Battle Monuments Commission, says that every American should make an effort to visit an American military cemetery overseas during their lifetime. Krohn wrote this in Sunday's Washington Post, which was perfect timing for me because I was in France on Tuesday visiting American military cemeteries.

Krohn says (rightly, from what I saw) that most of the American military cemeteries are devoid of visitors.
With the exception of the Normandy American Cemetery, which attracts thousands, others are virtually devoid of visitors, especially American visitors.
Krohn would like to change that and I agree with him that more Americans should visit these cemeteries. However, the experience of visiting the cemeteries is probably mostly frustrating for those who do visit and nothing like what Krohn experienced.
I work for the commission, yet nothing prepared me for the experience of seeing row upon row of crosses and Stars of David, maintained in absolute splendor. Walking with a cemetery superintendent who tells the stories of the fallen, my soul churned as I absorbed the extent of their sacrifice.

I'm an old soldier with combat experience. I appreciate the notions of valor and sacrifice. Still, my emotions were overwhelmed while I heard men and their exploits described so simply. There is no high-brow language. The superintendents say: Here's who's buried here, this is what we know about him, and this is what he was doing when he was killed.
I would have loved that experience myself. Yet, I had to make up the stories because the visitor centers at the cemeteries I stopped at were completely devoid of information.

The rows of crosses are affecting, but there's nothing about what these men were doing when they died. The neatness of the cemeteries, the uniformity of the crosses, the sparse information on them all contribute to a beautiful scene, but one that tends to detract from the reality that these men lived and died in extraordinary, terrifying, ugly circumstances. There's nothing at all about what they/their units/or the entire Army was doing in the area around that time that the battles raged.

One flimsy photocopy is all that's available to visitors and there's more information about the architects of the various monuments than there is about what the men who fought the battles were doing, what life was like, how they died. My kids were asking me all sorts of questions, but I didn't have any answers for them. Mr. Krohn's American Battle Monuments Commission has to do a better job of providing information for those who do visit.

{And, the maps they provide should include town names and road designations that the average visitor will find on a French road map - otherwise, there's a lot of trying to follow small signs on unfamiliar roads.}