The solemn commemoration of a war that was worth fighting

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The Independent Online

There can be few in this country, young or old, for whom the vast military operation that began at the sixth hour of the sixth day of the sixth month 60 years ago does not stir profound emotion. Be it awe at the audacity of the undertaking, respect for the courage of those who took part, abhorrence at the carnage on the beaches, or simply gratitude for its success, D-Day evokes a response in us all. It is part of who we are as a nation, a part of our national mythology, that will not be lost, even when the greatest generation, as it has memorably been called, has passed on.

There can be few in this country, young or old, for whom the vast military operation that began at the sixth hour of the sixth day of the sixth month 60 years ago does not stir profound emotion. Be it awe at the audacity of the undertaking, respect for the courage of those who took part, abhorrence at the carnage on the beaches, or simply gratitude for its success, D-Day evokes a response in us all. It is part of who we are as a nation, a part of our national mythology, that will not be lost, even when the greatest generation, as it has memorably been called, has passed on.

The Normandy landings captured our imagination as almost no other episode in recent history. There is the human story of those thousands of young servicemen, British, American and Canadian, who set out in ships and planes with no less an objective than the liberation of mainland Europe from fascism. There is the strategic vision and tactical cunning of the Allied command that made D-Day a model for military operations for all time. And there is the eventual victory that retrospectively justified the risks that were taken and the lives that were lost. These were battles, and this was a war, that was worth fighting; it was a war that had to be won.

This 60th anniversary will be marked with solemn acts of remembrance on the beaches that witnessed so much bloodshed and so much valour. Beside the exultant 50th anniversary, this weekend's commemoration will be quieter and, we trust, more reflective. The ranks of D-Day veterans are thinning. Two of the victorious allies, we and the Americans, have servicemen - and now women - fighting another war in a foreign land, though more contentiously this time. And the German Chancellor will be present.

Gerhard Schröder's presence at this year's D-Day anniversary has been no less controversial than was the absence of his predecessor, Chancellor Kohl, 10 years ago. Leaving aside the point that politicians shouldn't really be there at all, it is fitting that Germany, reunited and a pillar of the extended European Union, should be represented at what is likely to be the last significant commemoration of this epic event. This was the assault that turned the tide on the Western Front and opened the way not only for the Allied victory but also for the capitulation of Nazism - a victory today's Germany can also embrace.

It is not only the passage of time, however, which is likely to dictate that this weekend's ceremonial, evocative and moving as it is, will be the last of its kind. It is also the changing nature of the transatlantic alliance and the changes that are taking place in Europe. The harmony and solidarity of the 50th D-Day anniversary are no more.

President Bush's decision to wage a war for regime-change in Iraq and the Prime Minister's decision to ally this country with that cause have split the alliance in more than the obvious ways. France and Russia led opposition to the war in Iraq and carried the majority in the UN. The Iraq war lacked international support. And in Britain, it lacked the great groundswell of public determination that made victory, even against the mighty Nazi war machine, seem possible.

The Iraq war split the alliance and split Europe. European public opinion, though, was remarkably united in its opposition, and has become more so as Iraqi opposition has mounted. Whether Iraq was the cause or merely the manifestation of a historic trend, the division reinforced the impression of two continents, two world views, that are drifting apart: the United States - unilateralist and ideologically driven; and Europe - collaborative and pragmatic. Britain, whose government supported the war, and Canada - whose government opposed it - are suspended in between.

These divergent world views help to explain why President Bush's rhetorical comparisons between the Second World War and the "war on terror", and Mr Blair's more subtle use of historical comparison, ring so false. The Second World War supplies no justification for the invasion of Iraq. There is simply no similarity between the threat presented by Adolf Hitler's Germany and that presented by Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and it is offensive to try to use the momentous events of 60 years ago to justify events today to increasingly sceptical electorates.

A pre-emptive attack on US territory, Pearl Harbor, brought the US into the Second World War. The attacks of 11 September 2001 prompted a military response against Afghanistan. Mr Bush has chosen, disingenuously, once again to associate the terrorist attacks with Iraq. The liberation of occupied Europe has nothing whatever in common with the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. Compare the joyous reception accorded to the Allied troops entering Paris with the "welcome" for US troops entering Baghdad. Oppressed people recognise liberation when they see it.

The 60th anniversary of D-Day is not the occasion on which to pronounce the death of the transatlantic alliance. Nor is it certain that Mr Bush and his ideologues are the new face of America: the November election will be a gauge. But without the shared threat of the Cold War and with ever fewer social and political priorities in common, there is a possibility that before the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the alliance that secured so glorious a victory will also have been consigned to the past.

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