As the newly inaugurated President Trump repeated the words “America First”, I thought of the immaculate white crosses above Omaha Beach in Normandy. Their beautifully tended cemetery above the DDay landing sites are testament to the fact that eventually all of us have to face the fact that we are citizens of a big wide world, a world that faces common problems that require collaborative efforts. America would not have defeated Fascism by repeating Trump’s mantra.
In June of 2019 Single Step Tours helped the Honors College at the University of Wyoming construct a tour of the battlefields of northern France. We met up in London, and caught a ferry to Caen in bright sunshine. Three nights in Bayeux gave us the opportunity to explore the DDay battlefield in some detail, but perhaps the strongest impression on the students was when we stood on the sandy beach and looked up at the bluffs. In that moment we shared the perspective of those brave young soldiers as they emerged from their landing craft on that fateful morning. It was experiential learning at its most powerful.
The tour moved on to the WW1 battlefields. The poetry of that war was shared and reflected upon in the fields of the Somme, where in 1916 the world began to see what industrialised warfare was capable of. We were also able to look at the challenges faced by nurses and doctors in these horrific circumstances.
The last leg of the tour took us to Dunkirk, where 338,000 British soldiers were rescued from the beaches and returned to the U.K. in 1940. Hitler’s Blitzkreig had won a battle, but the successful evacuation played an important part in ensuring that the forces of liberal democracy would win the war. The view across the beaches was the ideal setting for a more general reflection on warfare in the 20th century. What causes war? Why fight? Most importantly, how should the lessons of the 20th century guide us through the 21st?
The students and faculty of the University of Wyoming were thoughtful, open minded people who brought a variety of disciplines to the mix. Their contributions to the discussion on the ferry home showed that the whole experience had a profound impact on them. It was a reminder to me of why the battlefields are the best classroom a teacher could wish for, and why I do what I do.