To probably at least half the population of America, World War II must seem like ancient history. Eisenhower might be a name with which those under 40 may be familiar, but only as one of a string of presidential names they had to memorize for history class. Mention Patton, Bradley, Clark, Nimitz, Halsey, or even FDR and blank stares may well ensue. I’m sure Hitler would be recognized as a bad guy, especially when likened to Harry Potter’s Lord Voldemort in a “He Who Must Not Be Named” vein. (I’m thinking Adolf would have been in Slytherin House.)
For those who lived through the 1940s, the 75th anniversary of D-Day represents a significant milestone. Witnesses to history who were acutely aware of what transpired that day are now well into their 80s, if not 90s. Certainly all the soldiers who saw action on the beaches of Normandy are nonagenarians. And even if their collective memories are fading on many things, chances are they remember that day vividly.
It was, of course, an entirely different world in the middle of the last century. Secrets were a little easier to keep. As hard as it is to imagine for younger Americans, there were no satellites, certainly no cellphones, no selfies, no videotape, no television and no way to keep in touch with loved ones at home except via letters. (Historical note: Letters were pieces of paper upon which was written, mostly in longhand, news of the day. The pages were folded, stuffed into a stamped envelope, addressed, and put in a corner mailbox to begin their journey.) Even “instant” news in 1944 took hours or even days.
The Allied invasion of Europe was not an action that took the Germans by surprise. They knew something big was up. (Even my dad, serving in Italy at the time and definitely not a member of the high command, said rumors were rampant.) But the locations of the landings were extremely hush-hush. There is a classic scene in the 1962 version of “The Longest Day” depicting the events of June 6, 1944, featuring two Nazi soldiers bored to tears because their task was to sit in a seaside concrete bunker on top of a cliff in France. Suddenly, over the horizon came the largest fleet of ships ever assembled for battle. The two Germans stood looking through binoculars, and suddenly had no moisture in their mouths but plenty of panic on their faces.
Had the invasion not been successful, the outcome of the war could easily have been very different. I may be writing this column in German — if I were allowed to write a column at all. Everyone on the voyage across the English Channel that day was a hero, although few, if any, claimed that mantle of valor. The soldiers all had jobs to do, and they simply did them. Despite continuous bombardment and tremendous casualties, those who successfully traversed the beaches and climbed the cliffs secured a foothold on the continent that less than a year later led to the fall of the Third Reich.
Not only were communications Stone Age by today’s standards, but things weren’t even remotely politically similar. The day after Pearl Harbor, when Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan and Germany, only one member of Congress voted no. Even isolationists ceased their opposition.
What do you suppose would happen now? Don’t get me wrong. I really don’t want to find out if senators and members of Congress would support a third World War, but given the present polarization of Democrats and Republicans, unanimity would probably not be attainable.
Moreover, how many younger Americans would flock to military enlistment offices to volunteer their services if needed to defend the country? From what I gather, neither the Army nor the Navy, and certainly not the Marines, take too kindly to snowflakes (those with an inflated sense of uniqueness) in their ranks. Recruits are taught to obey commands without question, and to follow battle plans exactly.
That’s not to attack the patriotism of anyone of draft age (say, under 25). Thankfully, there are certainly a lot of brave enlistees filling needed ranks now. But during World War II, the vast majority of Americans were behind the effort, and sacrificed in some way to help achieve victory. Over 6,000 gave their lives on D-Day alone. Given the divisive nature of the country today, even with a world at war, it might be hard to get a consensus. Let’s just hope we never have to find out. One D-Day in our history is sufficient.