June 7th, 2009
07:39 AM ET

Dear President Obama #139: On the battlefield

Reporter's Note: President Barack Obama seems to take this notion of communicating with normal Americans pretty seriously, and he has invited us to all write to him with suggestions on how to run the country.  And since he asked, I am writing a letter a day.

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/europe/06/06/dday.ceremony/art.dday.afp.gi.jpg caption="Thousands of allied troops lost their lives in the D-Day landings of June 1944."]

Tom Foreman | Bio
AC360° Correspondent

Dear Mr. President,

Among many fascinating people I have been privileged to know over the years was the noted historian and author Stephen Ambrose. He was, like so many of the people he wrote about, somewhat bigger than life. His understanding of history, and his ability to make it comes alive in both his books and interviews were wonderful.

I had the great pleasure of walking with him through the D-Day Museum in New Orleans a couple of years before he died, and he told me so many astonishing stories. As you may recall, he was the museum’s founder. He put up a small fortune of his own to get it started, and poured so much heart and determination into the project it simply could not fail. All of that was evident that day as we walked and talked; his deep respect, his years of study, and his abiding love for young Americans willing to go into battle beneath our nation’s flag.

The museum has since been renamed by Congress as America’s National World War Two Museum, and it is absolutely a must-see. And if you have never read Stephen’s book, D-Day, you really should.

That day as he and I strolled through the museum, amid the artifacts and documents, he told me of a principle that guides historians. He said in that great, confident voice, “To understand any battle, you have to walk the ground.” He explained then at some length how the simple act of walking on a battlefield, even decades after a war has ended, tells you something about what the troops faced. Geography. Weather. Topography. Ethnography.

I was at Gettysburg one afternoon and I saw three young men running across one of the battlefields. They were in street clothes, and it was warm. When they arrived at my position, I asked what they were doing. They explained that they were young Marines trying to take in even a tiny bit of the experience that troops must have had as they raced across that ground amid withering fire.

This idea of “walking the ground” is why I was delighted to see you at the commemoration ceremonies at Normandy for the D-Day landings. It does not matter that the event was 65 years ago, or that it is rapidly becoming a moment in time in which precious few living souls took part. What matters, and perhaps even more so for people like you and I who have not served in uniform, is that we walk the ground. It is an act of respect and understanding.

What was accomplished on D-Day defies comprehension in our modern and comfortable times, just as surely as it commands honor. You have asked for advice, and this is mine for you and every American, now and for the rest of your days take the time to walk the ground.

Call if you have a moment. I’d love to hear what else you’ve seen.



Find more of the Foreman Letters, here.

soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Terry, TX

    Great American Story....well written. One of the few CNN American stories that has been printed.

    I disagree that President Obama gave a good speech especially when in 8/13/07....he made the following statement ....
    ....our troops in Afghanistan are "just air-raiding villages and killing civilians"....then his Gitmo decision two days in office.

    I would have preferred to hear from the Queen of England....who actually served in WWII...American President with no military background was not impressive...speech was flat.

    June 8, 2009 at 8:23 am |
  2. Lori

    This good advice has infinite applications. Taking time to walk the ground can achieve long-term results. It's not glamorous and takes effort as well as perspiration. It can result in focus on previously overlooked details. It can reveal what has never considered without that experience. It can result in perspective and make you wise. Walking the ground results in better decisions.

    Hopefully this was not just an "act." Hopefully this symbolizes sincere steps toward better decisions for rebuilding what seems to have been torn down past its foundation by short-term thinking and selfishness over decades by many.

    June 8, 2009 at 6:42 am |
  3. Bud Kremer

    It is too facile for a CNN reporter to laud this president's visit to Normandy, when he so glibly disparages his predecessor's effort to strike against the Terrorists of Islamic Jihad running rampant in more than 50 wars around the globe, with especial concentration on the African Continent.

    Our nation stands now, as always, against tyranny over the dispossessed and downtrodden. Our dear sons and daughters are willingly putting all on the line in the effort to end world terrorism, but CNN hesitates to even use the word.

    Perhaps Mr. Obama's 'walking of the grounds' will help him push the effort through to completion.

    June 8, 2009 at 2:36 am |
  4. Tammy, Berwick, LA

    Ever since I was a child, I've walked just about every major battlefield on US soil that exists understanding that my ancestors fought on some of those hallowed grounds from the American Revolution to the War Between the States. I've also had the honor of walking at Arlington and the US cemetery in Nettuno, Italy, where thousands of our US soldiers are buried who fought for freedom in Sicily and other parts of Italy during World War II. It was very surreal. Little was I to know that months later a childhood friend would be buried at Arlington from injuries sustained in Iraq and become part of that group so honored for their service. Every citizen should walk the battlefields and cemeteries wherever they exist to understand the sacrifice and loss and honor. World leader photo ops in these places are good only if those leaders remember as they make policy and decisions of what the costs really are of going into battle and fighting for what matters.

    June 7, 2009 at 3:41 pm |
  5. marcia bunn

    i enjoy these ltrs!

    June 7, 2009 at 2:12 pm |
  6. Isabel, Brazil

    The most remarkable days of our century was, of course, then called D-day, therefore, marked the beginning of the German defeat in World War II with the opening of the western front, which is vital for victory together.

    Almost seventy years later, the invasion of Normandy remains the largest sea invasion in history.

    65 years is no small thing ... the brave who fought for justice and freedom they deserve all the tributes ... We owe much to them!

    June 7, 2009 at 1:17 pm |
  7. Rachel

    On my first trip to New Orleans, driving through LA, I feft the voices of many people, it was a sad feeling that came to me, "truly", I've always believed it was the descendents of my mom, so I relate to your story..Walk the ground!!, great story

    June 7, 2009 at 9:55 am |
  8. Adeline

    Thanks for writing about D-Day. My French grandfather fought in WWII.
    I followed the D-Day 65 anniversary live on the French media, and it was very touching to be reminded how much of our liberty we owe to Americans. It was a day where Americans and French (and British and Canadians) came together and remembered what is truly important: freedom, and helping each other out. Such a small number of men freed such a large amount of people. It doesn't take much to change the world sometimes. i'm profoundly moved to tears remembering the sacrifice of those young american, british, and canadian soldiers. Here in Normandie, everyone is raising the american flag on their door posts, and President Obama's speech was very moving. As a french person, I am very grateful for America's positive influence on our land and people. Although there are still some disagreements between the United States and France, D-Day truly symbolizes the friendship and deep tie that our two countries share.

    June 7, 2009 at 9:24 am |