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“So We Were on This Beach . . .”

Reuters/Pascal Rossignol

From time to time, members of the British ruling class and royal family get into trouble for attending fancy dress parties in German military uniforms from World War II. They claim that no offense was intended, that dressing like a Nazi is a purely aesthetic choice and does not retroactively endorse the invasion of Russia, the Holocaust, and so forth. To this, the offended reply that such outfits cannot be worn with impunity, can never be reduced to the merely decorative. One could perhaps go further and suggest that certain uniforms seep inward, as it were, and cause the wearer to absorb the ideological mindset of which the uniform is the vestimentary expression. Certain outfits turn everyone into method actors. (Hence the subtle and controversial power of The Nazis, an artwork by Piotr Uklański featuring stills of film stars playing the parts of Nazis.) 

Location: Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, France  Date: June 3, 2014
Photographer: Pascal Rossignol

Personally and uncontroversially, if I were invited to a World War II–themed party in Normandy, I’d want to dress like this lot, like a GI. The ultimate defense-of-democracy uniform, this eminently practical combination of smart and casual seems designed to oxymoronically express maximum individuality within uniformity—which is very useful in helping viewers identify particular members of the platoon or unit in war movies such as Saving Private Ryan. In other words, everyone gets to act like a GI in their own personal way. It’s just that, in this instance, the group listening to Jack W. Schlegel—a 90-year-old veteran of the 82nd Airborne—seems to have modeled itself on the Edward Burns character, the Brooklyn cynic and proto-hipster for whom saving Ryan is not a noble mission but a sentimental distraction from the real business of ... what? Expressing disillusion and exercising the democratic right to dissent—while never going so far as to discard the uniform in the style of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Jack is keen to tell his tale, but from the postures, facial expressions, and gestures of his audience, you’d think he was an Ancient Mariner who’d already regaled one wedding guest too many, that getting a first-person history lesson from a glittering-eyed vet is as interesting as hearing a dream narrated in detail. While Jack is as entranced by his narrative as a ten-year-old, the kid in the middle looks like he has been listening to this story and seeing the movie—The Longest Day?—for about 70 years: D-Day. Omaha Beach. Took out a pillbox single-handedly. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Fubar. Tell it to the birds, old man. It’s not that the listeners are actually bored. It’s that the uniforms have taken them back to 1944 so powerfully that they are obliged to act out an authentically historicized war-weariness.

Jack, however, is destined to have the last word. The moral of his story will come back to haunt them—and us: namely, that no matter what we do in our lives, we’ll end up as old geezers who no one wants to listen to. It’s the implacable revenge weapon of the aged, the biological equivalent of the Enigma decrypts: They know what’s coming.