The movie Dunkirk was just released, and I was surprised to find out just how many people had no idea what it was about. I suppose all events, almost no matter how large, are doomed to fade into history. But I will argue that, at least for now, World War II should not fade.
If any war can be called “good”, WW II was it. The bad guys (both Germany and Japan) were imperialistic and of the opinion that they were the master race. Life under their yoke would have been 20th century slavery.
WWII was fought and won within the lifetimes of living people. This fact will not be true for much longer, and we should use wisely the remaining time vet’s have.
More people died in WW II than the sum total of all other wars in the 20th century. More would have died if the war had not been fought and won.
WWII was the largest conflict in human history… by far. Unlike the Great War, now known as WW I, it actually was a “world war”. Battles were fought on every ocean, and on every continent, with the exception of the Americas. The battle did come to literally the very shores of the Americas, however.
WWI was a transitional war, and was fought over 19th century values and concerns. It was a war of kings, like most that preceded it. During WW I, the seeds were sown for modern warfare, including the invention of the machine gun, the tank, the submarine, and aerial-warfare. WW I was the last and only war to feature a static battle line, aka trench warfare. Prior to WW I, most battles were “set piece” battles, where each side lined up at the appointed place and had at it.
WW I gave rise to WW II, which gave us, radar, cruise missiles , the modern tank, jet fighters, atomic bombs/power, ballistic missiles, and a raft of other inventions that shaped our world. The modern computer rose out of the need to break Nazi codes, and nothing has changed the world more than the computing and communications revolution that it spawned.
WW II is the first war for which we have live film footage. Nothing brings home the carnage of war more effectively than moving images. Movies are fine, but actual seeing has a special weight. All sides saw the horror of war almost first hand.
WW II overflows with heroic tales: Dunkirk, D-Day, The Battle of the Bulge, Stalingrad, and Midway only scratch the surface.
WW II also overflows with the most awful acts that mankind has ever perpetrated, including state sanctioned genocide (a word that came to us from WW II). When the death camps were discovered, the world reeled, and we are now in the last days of chasing the perps… a task that should be pursued until every last Nazi criminal is dead or in prison. My uncle was lucky. He spent the last four months of the war in Dachau and other holiday retreats. But he survived. All the tales of cattle cars, typhus, starvation, dysentery, torture, etc are all true.
All of this, by itself, would place WWII at the top of the list of important events in human history. But WWII has another feature that few, if any wars in the past ever had. As I said, it was truly a battle of good versus evil. The sins of Nazi Germany and The Empire of Japan are so numerous and ghastly that I could not do them justice in a word or two.
The German and the Japanese empires had to be crushed.
And an entire generation was mobilized to do what had to be done. I often think about a plaque that used to hang in my fraternity house. It named fraternity members who had left school and died during the war. These were young men -- my age at the time -- who fought and died, not for Canada, or the Queen, or the British Empire (although they might have said otherwise), but because they saw a larger duty.
Dunkirk was an every-man’s heroic tale, and only one small chapter in the war. Thousands of small boat owners – not soldiers – risked the English Channel and helped save the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) of 360,000+ men.
Just a few months later, the Battle of Britain (not to be confused with The Blitz) would be fought and won. But that is another story.
Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.