Whether used to perpetrate evil or break free from the chains of tyranny, warfare has played an integral role in the human story. Examining this truth — despite the unpleasantness and atrocities often associated with combat — is necessary to help understand the past, present (such as what’s happening in Ukraine), and immediate future.
For those interested in walking in the footsteps of history, the following sites are open to the public.
In early July 1863, infantry and cavalry forces under the command of General Robert E. Lee attempted to invade the North near the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The rebels intended to force a negotiated end to the Civil War — a conflict waged over slavery — and establish the Confederate States of America as an independent nation. They almost succeeded.
The intense three-day battle became the turning point of the war, resulting in a combined total of more than 50,000 casualties. Despite a hard-fought Union victory, the bitterly divisive hostilities dragged on for another two years.
The battlefield later served as the setting for President Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, a speech delivered at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Today, these hallowed grounds are operated by the National Parks Services, allowing visitors to experience iconic landmarks, such as Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, Cemetery Ridge, and Culp’s Hill.
9. The Somme
The misery of trench warfare emerged as the defining element of “The Great War” — a strategy plagued by disease, rats, and horrific carnage. The Battle of the Somme would also present a painful lesson in futility.
Fought in northern France near the River Somme, the large offensive saw Allied forces target the well-entrenched German forces on the Western Front. However, after months of extensive planning, things went wrong. Immediately.
On July 1, 1916, the British Army suffered nearly 60,000 casualties on the first day of fighting. Over the next four and a half months, 1.3 million soldiers from both sides were either killed or wounded in one of the bloodiest battles in history. In the end, the slaughter yielded little territorial gains with no strategic importance.
More than a century later, scars from the battle can still be seen carved into the earth. The Remembrance Trail, a circuit linking the towns of Albert and Péronne, features the remains of trenches, shell hole craters, and several cemeteries.
On June 6, 1944, troops comprised of American, British, and Canadian units landed on the beaches of Normandy in the largest amphibious invasion in history. The soldiers were quickly met with stiff resistance by impregnable German guns while attempting to liberate Nazi-occupied France during WWII.
The morning of the battle saw paratroopers and glider troops initiate the action, dropping behind enemy lines to secure bridges and exit roads. Then, more than 150,000 Allied troops proceeded to storm and capture five designated beachheads. The war in Europe ended less than a year later.
The easily accessible memorials and museums in Normandy are a testament to astonishing heroism and sacrifice. Additionally, concrete pillboxes can still be seen along the coastline, serving as a cold reminder of the not-so-distant past.
Anzac Day, observed annually on April 25 in Australia and New Zealand, is a national day of remembrance. It originated as a tribute to the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), who took part in the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915, their first major engagement of WWI. The battle plan, designed to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war, ultimately represented a disastrous failure by British command, namely Winston Churchill, who was later forced to resign his post as Lord of the Admiralty.
After landing on the western shores of the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey, Anzac troops suffered exceptionally high casualty rates, primarily from relentless machine gunfire. Soldiers who survived the initial onslaught faced additional challenges, such as food and water shortages, disease, sweltering heat, and the constant menace of swarming corpse flies. Finally, after eight months of pure Hell, military brass decided to end the hopeless stalemate and retreat.
Then and now, the steep, rocky landscape of Gallipoli reveals a formidable natural barrier to invasion, underscoring the near-impossible task Allied soldiers encountered. In addition to the Anzac Cemetery, the battleground includes a 100 foot Helles Memorial on the tip of the peninsula overlooking the prized Dardanelles Straits.
6. Khe Sanh
As a prelude to the 1968 Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War, forces from the People’s Army of North Vietnam (PAVN) unleashed a massive artillery bombardment on the U.S. Marine garrison at Khe Sanh. There, American soldiers spent 77 days engaged in fierce combat in what became the deadliest battle of the Southeast Asia conflict.
Although the military base held little strategic value, General Westmoreland, commanding officer of the U.S. Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV), and US President Lyndon B. Johnson insisted on maintaining the position at all costs. The decision, however, proved costly.
The siege on Khe Sanh had primarily served as a diversionary tactic, allowing North Vietnamese and Viet Cong units to launch a far more destructive series of attacks on Saigon and other urban centers. Meanwhile, 6000 marines at Khe Sanh managed to fend off more than 20,000 enemy soldiers. By the time the siege ended, American casualties had tallied 2,800 killed or wounded. Similar attrition soon followed involving the relief efforts.
The government of Vietnam now allows travelers to explore the former compound and other war-related sites, including the Cu Chi tunnels. Built during the First Indochina War, the extensive, 150-mile labyrinth consisted of numerous rooms, an infirmary, a kitchen, food storage, and ammunition depots. The underground network also accommodated legions of rodents, insects, and venomous snakes — creatures who couldn’t care less that the war is over. Enter at your own risk.
In the final days of WWII, Allied troops raced towards the German capital, determined to end six years of unimaginable violence and destruction by the Nazi war machine. But, as fate would have it, the Red Army got there first — and proceeded to plunder at will — barbarity that saw Russian soldiers rape an estimated two million German women.
Eventually, the Allies carved up the spoils into various sectors while setting the wheels in motion for The Cold War. Eight decades later, a wide assortment of war remembrances are scattered throughout the rebuilt city, including vestiges of Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall.
Although Hitler’s infamous Führerbunker has long since been demolished, visitors can still descend into the bowels of a similar WWII bunker. The guided tour chillingly recreates the subterranean complex where the German dictator spent his final days before committing suicide.
With its current population of around 300 residents, the sleepy village of Agincourt is situated in the Pas-de-Calais department in northern France, approximately three hours by car from Paris. The tranquil setting and pastoral landscape contrast sharply from the chaos and bloodshed that occurred here on October 25, 1415, during the Battle of Agincourt.
As part of the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453), this late medieval battle saw heavily outnumbered English and Welsh soldiers rely heavily on the longbow to defeat the French Army. Shakespeare later immortalized the epic clash in his play, Henry V, which includes the famous battle speech that has since been imitated in countless war films, from Braveheart to Zulu.
The site boasts the newly expanded “Agincourt 1415” Center, featuring interactive displays, weaponry, armor, and video presentations designed to give the visitor a feel for “the smell of blood and roses.” For those looking for something a bit more appetizing, fresh-baked croissants and cafe au lait are served at the nearby Boulangerie Evrard Chez Elodie et Nicolas.
3. The Killing Fields of Cambodia
Between 1975 and 1979, more than two million people were killed in Cambodia by the ruling Communist Party of Kampuchea — better known as the Khmer Rouge. Several mass graves from this massacre can be found on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, the nation’s capital and largest city.
Tragically, Cambodia remains one of the world’s worst-affected states from contamination by mines, cluster munition remnants, and other explosive remnants of war (ERW), including ordnance, dropped by American bombers on secret missions during the Vietnam War.
One of the more poignant memorials of this ancient kingdom’s troubled past is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, housed on the grounds of a former secondary school transformed into an interrogation and detention center by the Khmer Rouge regime. Located in the heart of Phnom Penh, “it preserves evidence of a tragic period in Cambodian history with the aim of encouraging visitors to be messengers of peace.”
2. Little Big Horn
Located 60 miles southeast of Billings, Montana, an abundance of memorials and tourist attractions mark the battle of ‘Custer’s Last Stand.’ In June 1876, the US 7th Cavalry, under Lt. Col George Custer, was annihilated by Sioux Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors. Their victory, however, would have dire consequences.
Custer’s death spurred the US government to escalate its systematic genocide of Native American tribes. Those not murdered were often exposed to deadly germs and diseases like smallpox, influenza, and measles.
Regardless, romanticized tales of the US cavalry have been endlessly portrayed in film, TV, and books. However, these yarns usually omit how Custer’s arrogance and questionable leadership not only got himself killed but also two of his brothers, a nephew, and a brother-in-law.
The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is open year-round except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. In addition to the actual battlefield, the complex features a museum, visitor’s center, and the Custer National Cemetery.
One of the first things you see when approaching the front gate of Auschwitz is a sign which reads, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Makes You Free”). The cruel irony sets the uneasy tone when touring the largest Nazi concentration camp and extermination center.
The site is located on the edge of the southern Polish city of O?wi?cim, roughly 30 miles from the international airport in Kraków. The authentically preserved grounds consist of two parts of the former camp, Auschwitz and Birkenau, and include remains of the notorious gas chambers. Visitors are obliged to behave with due solemnity and respect — in other words, not the place to take duck-lipped selfies for your Instagram account.
The horrors of the Holocaust are difficult to process — but’s it’s an important lesson from which all humankind can benefit. Perhaps Spanish philosopher George Santayana said it best: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”