Thursday, June 5, 2014

D Day + 70

One of my most cherished family heirlooms hangs on the wall of my sitting room in the Paulist Residence in Knoxville. It is a map made by my father and embellished with various military insignia, tracing his service in his artillery unit on the ground in Europe from D+2 (June 8, 1944), when he first landed in France, two days after D Day, until V-E Day 11 months later. His service included Paris in the immediate aftermath of its liberation in August 1944 and the infamous Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.

The successful Allied invasion and conquest of German-occupied Western Europe was a long, hard effort that began 70 years ago tomorrow with the memorable D-Day landing in Normandy. As the World War II generation - now famously known as "the Greatest Generation" - passes from this world, the world owes it to them (and to itself) to remember, reflect, and resolve.

The remember part is obvious - and easy, although maybe more of a challenge today in a world in which an appreciation and knowledge of history and its lessons is increasingly absent. Commemorative celebrations in Normandy and elsewhere remind rightly remind us of the heroic sacrifices made in that epic conflict of civilization and of the admirable leadership provided by an even older generation long since gone - leaders like General Eisenhower whose administrative and diplomatic skills facilitated such a complex international undertaking, along with such figures of such rarely paralleled eminence as Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

The reflection part should also be obvious, although our ability to reflect is increasingly diminished by our impoverished sense of history and increasing ignorance of what World War II was even about. World War I, the centennial of which we will mark this summer, was a largely unnecessary war, which tragically continued for four long years because hardly anyone seemed capable of saying "stop" to its absurdity. When it finally did end, it resulted in a wholesale disruption of the European political order and thus created the world which made World War II possible, probable, and perhaps inevitable. World War II, in turn, represented a monumental assault of the very fabric of Western civilization. It too created a new world order in its wake - better by far than the legacy of World War I but also problematic in new ways (among them most prominently the Cold War). Intelligent and honest reflection on the many mistakes that paved the way to World War II as well as on some of its unintended and surprising consequences remains critical to understanding our currently disordered world.

And in this presently disordered world, it is the resolve part that must concern us most. What kind of resolve would be required of present and future leaders to respond to world disorder with the fortitude and foresight of the generation of leaders that led the Allies to victory in World War II? Equally to the point, what kind of resolve and what radical conversion of contemporary values would be required to become again the kind of society that could prosecute and win a war like World War II?

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