The first bombs on Tuesday the 6th fell on our house. A dreadful catastrophe! Mother, grandmother, Nicolette, and Andrée crushed beneath the rubble.
So begins my grandfather’s letter, dated June 9, 1944, three days after the D-Day landing in Normandy. Passed from one person to the next in the chaos of the war, the letter reached my mother in Paris two weeks later. Her own letter of June 7, addressed to a house that no longer existed, took even longer to reach my grandfather, who had taken refuge in an abbey.
The day my great-grandmother, grandmother, and aunt were killed by Allied bombs, more than 4,000 Allied soldiers died; by the time the Battle of Normandy was over, three months later, an estimated 54,000 Allied soldiers had lost their lives.
As a dual citizen of France and the United States, I sometimes feel embarrassed mentioning my family’s losses. The estimated number of French civilians killed on D-Day — 2,500 — is roughly equivalent to the number of American deaths that day; 20,000 civilians are estimated to have been killed over the course of the battle. Still, it can seem impolite to mention those deaths when the Allies were there to rid France of the Germans, and the military’s own losses were so devastating.
And yet, from my grandfather’s letter: The house is gone. Nothing but an immense field of rubble … We called. We listened. Nothing. Terrifying silence … Hours later, we found Andrée’s body … After great effort, my dear little Nicolette’s body. In such a state! Good God! And still nothing of Mother, nothing of Grandmother … the bombing continues.
The phrase “civilian casualties” is almost always preceded by the words “to say nothing of” (“4,496 troops died in Iraq, to say nothing of civilian casualties”), and for the most part, we do say nothing. Dead civilians are “collateral damage” — literally, secondary damage. We do shamefully little for our veterans, though we’re grateful for their service; any mention of civilian deaths seems impolite precisely because it seems like an absence of gratitude.