Last time out, I gave my take on the Canadian thrust for Carpiquet early on in the Normandy campaign. History has tended to remember it as a victory for Kurt “Panzer” Meyer and the 25th SS Panzergrenadiers; Canadians then and now have disputed that claim, pointing out that the unit allegedly “destroyed" by Meyer and his boys (the North Nova Scotia Highlanders) actually fulfilled its mission by holding the high ground between Buron and Authie. The point was not to judge between these conflicting claims, but rather to note how controversial the very concept of “victory” can be. A lot of it depends on where you’re standing, how you feel about your own situation, and what you know about the enemy’s.
I recently spent some time in Lexington, VA, at the Society for Military History’s annual conference, and I had a chance to chat up some of my friends in the scholarly and academic communities on this very point. It struck me in the course of these talks just how unusual World War II was. In a century of wars that often ended very ambiguously, even messily, World War II was the big enchilada. The Allies certainly felt the “thrill of victory.” Three big Axis enemies. Three enemies destroyed. Three countries laid waste by strategic bombing. Three enemy capitals occupied. The end of the war, with atomic fire raining down on a pair of Japanese cities, was the very distillation of the “agony of defeat.” It was proof positive of which side had triumphed. No one needed to debate the meaning of “victory” in this one.
Let us think a little more deeply, however. How often does this sort of thing happen? After all, there was another great conflict in the 20th century, World War I. It ended in a victory of sorts, but a very incomplete one as far as the Allies were concerned. The German army actually marched back home under the command of its own officers. It staged a parade in Berlin in which the new Chancellor of the German Republic, Friedrich Ebert, told the soldiers that “no enemy has vanquished you.” The problems which led to the war–especially the difficulty of integrating a powerful, unified Germany into the European state system–hadn’t disappeared at all. We might go so far as to say that, in World War I, the WAR itself was the winner, destroying no fewer than four great empires and killing an entire generation of young European men.
And how about the rest of the century? The “meatgrinder” phase of the Korean conflict? The horrible but senseless bloodletting between Iran and Iraq? Our current pair of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? Sure, sometimes one adversary does win a decisive victory. The city formerly known as Saigon is today called “Ho Chi Minh City,” after all. So it does happen. But I think we can say, as a general historical rule, it usually doesn’t.
And yet, we still expect it to happen, and we are often thrown into a kind of psychological crisis when the wars we fight fall short of our expectations, when they fail to end in a quick, decisive victory.
World War II continues to cast a long shadow over all of us.
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