Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the world is “again seeing death and destruction on the European continent.” He stood among the snow-white marble headstones of Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, the final resting place for more than 9,000 U.S. troops killed in action.
Milley commemorated their sacrifices as he and the defense chiefs from countries supporting Ukraine meet this week in the Normandy countryside to discuss how else they may assist Kyiv in fighting off a Russian invasion that has left tens of thousands dead.
“The world has come together in support of the defense of Ukraine against a determined invader,” Milley said, speaking a short distance from where U.S. troops came ashore on Omaha and Utah beaches. He said the fight now is about maintaining “the order that was established in 1945 at the conclusion of World War II.”
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That included the establishment of the NATO military alliance, whose members have rushed weapons and ammunition to the Ukrainian border to help Kyiv fend off Russian forces. Underpinning the world order established after World War II was the principle that “strong countries cannot just invade small countries,” Milley said, adding, “That aggression cannot be left to stand.”
Milley recalled the German blitz across Europe beginning in the late 1930s and how millions of people were killed in the years to come. He said the world was slow to respond. “Let not those who lay here be the last witnesses to a time when allies came together to defeat tyranny. Let’s all band together as allies, partners and friends. Let us continue to stand shoulder to shoulder as an alliance,” he said.
In a subsequent interview at the cemetery, Milley told reporters traveling with him that the United States and its allies are trying to prevent “another great European war” and that what Russia has done in Ukraine since invading Feb. 24 is “qualitatively different than anything we’ve seen in a lot of years.” There has been violence in Europe since World War II, Milley noted, citing bloodshed in the Balkans and Georgia, “but this is one of a different order of magnitude in size, scale and scope.”
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The United States, which removed a cadre of military trainers from Ukraine before the start of hostilities there, does not want war with Russia, Milley said. But the Kremlin’s provocation must be answered in some form, he said.
“Aggression cannot be allowed to succeed,” he said. “Otherwise, everything that these guys fought for and died for on Omaha Beach means nothing. We can’t allow that to be. We can’t allow them to have died in vain.”
Milley acknowledged that Russia’s military is making some gains as it hammers Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where Moscow has shifted its emphasis after failing to seize the capital city, Kyiv, earlier in the invasion.
“Whatever progress the Russians are making is very, very limited and in small increments day to day, and they’re suffering heavy casualties for that,” he said.
After delivering his speech on Monday, Milley walked the cemetery for a couple hours, meeting World War II veterans, taking pictures with French and American civilians, and leaving commemorative coins at several graves.
Among those he visited were the final resting place of Army Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., who earned a Medal of Honor for valor on D-Day and died of a heart attack a month later in France, and those of James and Joseph McKeon, brothers from Milley’s native Massachusetts who died in action a couple months apart in 1944.
Among the veterans whom Milley met was Denny Thompson. He told the chairman that he piloted B-17 and B-24 bombers for the United States, and that he was wounded twice during combat missions. Thompson, sitting in a wheelchair with a cigar, said in an interview after meeting with Milley that he still wears his original uniform and that he turns 100 years old in July.
He has been attending anniversary ceremonies at the Normandy cemetery since 1995, he said. Asked why it’s important for him to keep visiting, Thompson was blunt. “It’s pretty goddamn important to anybody,” he said.