How important is World War II? Does it still matter?
I think about this question a lot. Historians are, by definition, a weird bunch. They live in the past. They care about things other people have forgotten. They constantly reference the past when thinking about current events. Ask them about the ongoing war in Afghanistan, and they’ll mention everything from Alexander the Great’s campaign in Bactria to the retreat of Lord Elphinstone’s army from Kabul in 1842. They remember names other people have forgotten. Who remembers Maurice Gamelin, Hans Hube, or Frido von Senger und Etterlin today?
I’ll tell you who. I do. Sometimes I feel like these guys are members of my family. I talk about them constantly, much to the consternation of my real family. I try not to talk TO them. At least not too much. That way lies madness, after all.
But I do think a lot about the meaning of it all. How–in this modern age of “new wars” and counterinsurgency (COIN) and a U.S. commander in present-day Afghanistan who tells his troops that their principal mission is to “spend time,” with the locals, to “listen” to them and to “drink lots of tea,”–does World War II still matter?
I’m not being a Luddite here, or taking a cheap swipe at General Petraeus. I wouldn’t trade places with him for anything. I understand that we can’t carpet bomb our way out of the current mission(s) in Iraq and Afghanistan. COIN really does matter. As an American, I’d rather win these two wars than lose them, and clearly, applying maximum levels of violence, World War II-style, won’t cut it in the Middle East today.
But I still spend a lot of time with long-dead figures like BG Norm Cota. The assistant commander of the 29th Infantry Division on Omaha Beach, ol’ “Dutch” Cota didn’t have a lot of interest in asking the locals how they “felt.” He had a mission: storm a stoutly defended beach, kill the enemy soldiers facing him, and advance inland. And for those current COIN advocates who think that Cota was operating in a “kinetic,” and therefore simpler, environment–I’d make a simple point: kinetic operations (“high intensity” in earlier lingo) are the hardest operations of all. You don’t have a lot of time to think here. You certainly don’t have time to “drink lots of tea.” You make a mistake, even for a millisecond, and a lot of people die. Hell, maybe you die. It can get real ugly, real fast.
This summer, I had a rare opportunity as a historian: I spoke at West Point (at the U.S. Military Academy’s famed Summer Seminar), the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA, and the US Command And General Staff College (CGSC) and School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) in Ft. Leavenworth, KS. For an ordinary civilian, it was a veritable “trifecta,” and a high honor, and while I’d like to think they chose me for my brilliance (and boyish good looks), that wasn’t it at all. They chose me because they wanted to hear about World War II. The U.S. military, in other words, is still thinking about high intensity conflict, large-scale operations, and big battle.
And while I (and they) hope that we never have to do it again, in the back of our minds, I think we all know we will.
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