Vital Signs

The Face of Battle

Saving Private Ryan
Produced by Steven Spielberg
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by Robert Rodat
Released by Paramount and DreamWorks SKG

If you visit the American cemeteries near the beaches at Normandy—there are two of them—you may pick up a booklet describing the landings of June 6, 1944, as I did over 15 years ago. Under the listing for "Omaha," the anonymous historian wrote that

the 1st U.S. Infantry Division landed here from 6.30 . . . however, there was a rough sea at the foot of the cliffs. The first assault suffered heavy losses . . . the beach had not been cleared of anti-invasion devices, and the tide was rising. . . . A few assault groups reached the top of the beach. . . . The Pointe du Hoc was climbed and captured by 225 Rangers. . . . This was the most difficult of the landings.

I study these words as I walk across the Colleville-St-Laurent cemetery on a surprisingly blustery summer day, overcast and damp. The cemetery is the final resting place of some 9,386 Americans killed in the battle for Normandy, and the debris of war—obstacles set up by Rommel to impede an invasion and the pill boxes on the summit of Pointe du Hoc—is still there, jutting from the sand and the stone like bizarre post-modern sculptures. Descending to the beach and walking in the direction of the Ranger assault at Pointe...

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