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The Enduring Fascination – And Challenge – Of World War II

More than seven decades after the end of World War II, why are we still so fascinated by it?  On a primal level, World War II is the complete package. Violence, action, adventure, romance, drama, death defying feats, passions, race, gender, new inventions, crisis decision making, colorful personalities and leaders, evil personalities and leaders, horror, heroism, and a triumphant ending. It doesn’t get any better (or worse) in the realm of human experience.

World War II also serves to remind us what happens when a country is caught flatfooted and unprepared to respond to a crisis. The Pearl Harbor attack made clear that preparedness for a crisis is paramount. Failure to learn that lesson almost always leads to disaster. The 9/11 attack in 2001, first. Then twenty years after, the nation’s failure to prepare and have plans in place to combat the COVID Pandemic. In both cases, the U.S. paid a terrible price for its lack of preparedness as it did with Pearl Harbor.

It’s simplistic to say that World War II is a case of wanting to hang onto a feel-good, nostalgic past triumph. History is never past. It continues to repeat itself in many ways, and most importantly in many of the eternal issues--war and peace, violence and non-violence, authoritarian rule and democratic government, conservative and liberal ideology, civil liberties and national security, and terrorism and intervention. 

Author and World War II expert Michael Bess says the war continues to challenge us to never lose sight of the nation’s principles and values:

The issue raised here is a vital one for any democratic society: how to balance a commitment to constitutional rights and liberties with the demands of security in wartime.  The lesson of World War II, in this regard, is clear: take the long view; don’t get lost in the panic of the moment.  In 1942, in the name of national security, we Americans seized a racially demarcated subset of our citizenry and threw them in the slammer.  In both cases, the justification was the same: We are at war.  We have to do this in order to survive. But this turned out not to be true.  Not a single case of Japanese-American subversion was ever prosecuted during World War II.

History should be approached as a living, breathing organic day-to-day experience. The events of the past that continually influence, shape, and contain important lessons for the present and the future are perpetually invaluable. One of my favorites is nicely summed up on the University of People website

Learn from the past and notice clear warning signsWe learn from past atrocities against groups of people, genocides, wars, and attacks. Through this collective suffering, we have learned to pay attention to the warning signs leading up to such atrocities. Society has been able to take these warning signs and fight against them when they see them in the present day. Knowing what events led up to these various wars helps us better influence our future.

Do “genocide,”, “atrocities,”, “wars,”, “attacks,” “collective suffering,” “warning signs,” “fight against them,” or “better influence our future,” sound familiar? The message is to be forewarned is to be forearmed. That’s the purpose of knowing and taking to heart the great lessons of, and from, the past. In the end the past is the present and the future. 

Here are three immediate examples that painfully underscore that.  The U.S. stamped an everlasting stain on its claim to be the global champion of democracy when it interned 120,000 Japanese Americans during the war. The interned not only committed no crime but were productive citizens that made integral contributions to the nation in agriculture, trade, and the manufacturing industries.

The U.S. learned from that heinous act. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, fear and hysteria did not run rampant in the nation. There was no wholesale lock-up of Muslims in the country under the guise that they posed a threat to national security. Nearly two decades later, then President Trump’s demand to exclude citizens from nations deemed “terrorist” from entrance into the U.S. ignited major resistance and legal challenges. It was soon modified and then scrapped. We learned again.

There were assorted identifiable white nationalist, supremacist and neo-Nazi supporters involved in the violence during the Capitol takeover January 6, 2021. The reaction from the government, media and public was swift condemnation, mass arrests, and prosecutions of the perpetrators. Congressional hearings were held that decried the laxity of response and ignoring intelligence warnings of possible violence. There would be no Reichstag type takeover here. 

There is the always public tremor over the use of atomic power. When the Biden administration in April 2021 approved a plan to bankroll a multibillion-dollar project in New Mexico to manufacture key components for the nation’s nuclear arsenal, antinuclear and environmental watchdog groups sprang into action. They threatened lawsuits, court action, and public protests over the plan. 

I could name many more examples of how World War II hold lessons for the present.

The monumental destruction World War II wreaked should never blind us to the fact that the war was first and foremost a major historical event. As with all major historical events, they happen in a continuum of time and place. As such, they have important social, political, and economic consequences long after their end. In What is History?, eminent historian E.H. Carr ruminated at length about the inseparable linkage between the past and the present, “It is at one the justification and the explanation of history that the past throws light on the future, and the future throws light on the past.”

Carr goes further. He insists that history has value only when it sheds light on the present and future, “History establishes meaning and objectivity only when it establishes a coherent relation between past and future.”

America’s master oral history chronicler Studs Terkel published many books in which regular folk told their stories about just about every aspect of American life. There was no surprise then that the Good War had the sledgehammer impact on the public it did when it was released in 1984. 

The stories the men and women of World War II told had instant and moving resonance for legions of readers born years, even decades, after the war. They could identify with the human emotions and drama that poured forth in their remembrances. It was the epitome of living history. It was no accident in May 2021, thirty-seven years afterThe Good War, was published, and thirty-six years after it won a Pulitzer Prize, the book still ranked among the top 20 bestsellers in two non-fiction categories on Amazon

This literally speaks volumes why World War II, the good war, still fascinates us. And undoubtedly will continue to.