This week, two major anniversaries will take place. On June 6, Americans will observe the 70th anniversary of the landing of U.S. and Allied forces on the beaches of Normandy, the largest land invasion in military history. Three hundred thousand soldiers and 54,000 warships took part in the landing. As most of us know from Tom Hanks’ movie Saving Private Ryan, their effort was carried out at a momentous price and was truly heroic.
It is most likely, as Time magazine notes in a poignant article, that this will be the last observation held in Normandy at Omaha beach (they occur every five years) with D-Day veterans in attendance. Those still living are in their 80s and 90s. “The reason why World War II has such a powerful influence on our imagination,” the British military historian Antony Beevor told Time, “is because the moral choices were so great and important. That’s the most important lesson for younger generations.”
Today, it seems that there are not many heroes (outside of those in the armed forces) the equivalent of those young men who now are referred to as “the greatest generation.” One has to pause and wonder: if America was under attack now as it was at Pearl Harbor, would so many rush to Army recruiting stations to voluntarily enlist to defend our nation?
We are reminded of how lucky we are to be living in the United States of America when we reflect on the meaning of the other anniversary that takes place only two days later after the conclusion of the Normandy landing. This one, remembered today-June 4th, will sadly not be remembered publicly in the country in which it took place.
I’m referring, of course, to the forthcoming 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in the People’s Republic of China, in which thousands of democracy protestors were forced to end their non-violent demonstration in an orgy of spilled blood. The so-called “People’s Army” shot young Chinese protestors on the orders of the Communist Party leadership.
The New York Times reports that we are now learning more about what happened on that day. It seems that one army general, chief of the powerful and large 38th Group Army, bravely told the party leaders when summoned to headquarters that he believed the demonstrations could only be resolved by the political process, and not by military force. Major General Xu Qinxian told a historian: “I’d rather be beheaded than be a criminal in the eyes of history.”
History is precisely what the Chinese government fears, to this day. Since Tiananmen, hundreds of Chinese have moved into the middle class, others have joined the world’s super-rich, and yet the bulk of farmers still live in rural poverty or flee to the cities to try to find work. What the Chinese do not have is any semblance of political freedom. Dissenters are arrested and thrown into jail, the internet is heavily controlled, and accurate memory of past repression — especially that undertaken at the party’s command on June 4 twenty-five years ago at Tiananmen Square — is prohibited.