One of the most striking things I find from D Day commemorations is the implicit understanding among most who attend that victory was not inevitable. I think it’s what makes the drama of D Day still so compelling after all these years. The letter of failure prewritten by Eisenhower, how Hitler slept late while panzers sat idle, the blinding courage that seized Omaha Beach before the day ended with elite Nazi infantry separating the Allied beachheads. It all could have gone very differently.
This (and the Eurocentric mindset that permeates a war that essentially began in 1914) makes D Day something more than say, the invasion of Okinawa. Depending on how you count troop or ship numbers, the Allied invasion of Okinawa can be considered the larger and certainly far bloodier affair. But victory in Okinawa was essentially inevitable. It was simply a matter of how many Allied and Japanese would die in battle (alongside a near tragic 50% fatality rate of Okinawan civilians).
D Day is different, a great gambit, one of the most consequential risks in the history of war. Without it, it’s conceivable to consider the ideas of a separate peace with Germany, something less than total victory. A Europe and a world that would look very different. A massive failure of democracy against the worst of totalitarianism.
But to me, the seeds of victory lie in the differing systems at war, the different visions of humanity. Put in the bluntest of military of terms, the Allies win because democracy allows the battlefield flexibility of thought, leadership, and initiative required. Conversely, Rommel has to wait for a dictator to give him the most basic and common sense of tactical orders. One system was doomed to fail, to fall apart under its own contradictions. Something similar happens in the political realm with the Soviets Circa 1989.
So it’s a victory rightly celebrated, honored, and remembered. But I’m always given pause when considering these sorts of events. That was then, a generation guided by a singular purpose to keep their societies free. My own family was among them. How does that stack up with today?
Today speech laws in Britain can get you jailed if you publicly quote the “wrong” words of Churchill. Since that day the vaunted Allied coalition has lost more wars than it’s won, it will soon be in Afghanistan five times longer than it took to win World War II. 75 years after a war to preserve freedom across the globe, very few bat an eye when the Sudanese military guns down over 100 unarmed protestors; because they can, because they know nobody cares.
So D Day into what? I think a much narrower purpose than one would wish for. Perhaps less about freedom or democracy for the globe, but rather the very narrow goal for the planet’s Western powers to defeat the Imperial Japanese and Nazi threat that sought to supplant them. And then immediately after, to confront a Soviet threat that sought to do the same. If you don’t have nuclear weapons, eventually the very opposite Soviet and Western visions would have had to resolve their conflict in battle. But, the threat of mutual destruction left the Soviets to fall politically in 1989, albeit with a miserly amount of proxy wars that broke dozens of the planet’s other nations.
One out of every nine Americans wore a military uniform during this war. The equivalent number is if 30 million Americans were in the military today. Instead, there are more Americans in jail or prison at this very moment than are on active duty service. More Americans are likely to know their smartphone in greater detail than the most basic considerations of D Day. Whole sections of the modern culture think history has nothing to offer us at all, that it needs revision, or even destruction to rebuild society into something new.
It gives one pause, and a wonder about what D Day bought the world 75 years ago. A journey, into what? Toward victory, yes. But then what? That still, even today, is for us to decide. They bought us the chance we all have today. Today, as then, it’s up to us what we do with it.