The lessons and legacies of D-day


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Coalition politics. Insurgency and counterinsurgency. Human rights abuses and war crimes. Technological adaptation and innovation in the face of security challenges. These may seem like themes ripped from events in a post-9/11 world but as we walk the hedgerows in Normandy, France reflecting on this D-day anniversary we see the past and the present.

As co-director of SDSU’s graduate program in Homeland Security, the past few summers I have had the opportunity to take students to learn about these themes first-hand during a 16-day thematic study abroad course “The Lessons and Legacies of D-Day.”

In partnership with Normandy Allies, a non-profit organization which provides logistic and educational support for those wanting to learn more about the events associated with D-Day and Operation Overlord, 16 students and I have the unique privilege of being in Normandy on this D-day anniversary.

This trip allows students to get a sense of history they could never have picked up in the classroom. It is one thing for students to learn about war in the classroom but it is another thing entirely to learn about it in front of a wall pock-marked by German bullets used to execute a teenage boy in the French resistance, or to talk with a decorated American veteran who, at 19, floated to earth in a hail of gunfire so that he and his brothers could shed their blood to liberate those under the yoke of a totalitarian regime.

During the trip, students learn about the strategic, operational and tactical levels of the conflict via readings and a series of staff rides to many of the numerous battlefields of Normandy. They also meet and discuss the war and its consequences with American, British, Canadian and French veterans of the war, as well as many French civilians and resistance fighters who suffered as the battle raged around their homes.

While we are here we will also engage in a number of citizen diplomacy efforts too, joining French veteran and civic groups in laying wreaths on the monuments commemorating the sacrifice of American soldiers. On this anniversary day we’ll attend official ceremonies of remembrance occurring in the British and American sectors. This year, students are in the VIP section for a speech made by recently elected French President Hollande.

Many of these students are war veterans themselves and for them this trip can be truly cathartic. I see them reflect on their own service and connect it to the battles of past generations.

When I talk about war and security in my classes, it is not just an academic exercise. This trip helps me show them that while many things have changed, some never will.

Dr. Jeffrey McIllwain is co-director of SDSU’s graduate program in homeland security and associate professor of public affairs

1 Comment

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One response to “The lessons and legacies of D-day

  1. wow what an amazing trip, I sure wish something like that would of been made available when I attended. Sounds like an amazing self realization through history.

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