June 05, 2004

Remembering D-Day and World War II

Two new articles out this weekend discuss popular perceptions of World War II, and I'd recommend both of them. The first piece, a Slate article by David Greenberg, argues that "World War II nostalgia has gone too far" and that D-Day plays too large a role in our understanding of the conflict:

Obviously, the invasion of Normandy was a crucial event in American history, worthy of commemoration. But so are many of the events of World War II, and it's worth asking why V-E Day, for example, or V-J Day, or for that matter the death of Franklin Roosevelt doesn't serve as the focus of our national remembrance. Why does D-Day prompt Tom Brokaw to hustle into a helicopter and report to us for three nights from the skies above Omaha Beach?

An answer to these questions begins with the realization that the D-Day enthusiasm, like all rituals of memory, says more about the present than it does about the past. For one thing, unilateralism is ascendant today, and the popular D-Day storyline glorifies the U.S. role above all: tens of thousands of average American boys dramatically storming the beaches of Normandy to open a second front against the German army, their success speeding Hitler's demise.

But this version neglects, among other small details, the importance of the Allies. It especially shortchanges the Soviet Union—no doubt a vestige of Cold War attitudes. For three years, after all, the Germans focused their efforts on their all-important Eastern front, and most military historians agree that the 1942-43 Battle of Stalingrad, not D-Day, was the real pivot point in the decline of Axis fortunes. (Meanwhile, the United States was pouring its energy into fighting Japan; as the critic Benjamin Schwarz has noted, the D-Day-centered narrative of World War II also unfairly slights the Pacific Theater.)

Besides overstating the centrality of the second front and neglecting the Allies' part, the current D-Day obsession also feeds off and perpetuates a romance with war and militarism. The tone of the recent coverage of D-Day (and World War II in general) has been surprisingly monochromatic, especially when compared to that of past eras. In the war's immediate aftermath, as the historian Gunter Bischof has noted, cultural and artistic treatments of the combat weren't all rosy. Novelists Norman Mailer, in The Naked and the Dead, and Joseph Heller, in Catch-22, showed that however noble the war's purpose, absurdities and moral conundrums abounded, and millions died needlessly. (Schwarz links to a 1946 Atlantic Monthly article that voiced similarly ambivalent feelings about the war.)

I'd recommend each of the articles that Greenberg links to, as well as this Cliopatria post by Tim Burke; I've touched on similar themes here, here, and here. I'm tempted to write more on the subject now, only I don't have a lot to add. One of the strengths of Greenberg's article, I thought, was that it provided a nice description of how Ronald Reagan helped shape popular memories of World War II--a fact I've never really considered before, even though I'm familiar with Reagan's speech on the anniversary of D-Day.

The second article is a New York Times "arts and ideas" piece about the reenactment of recent wars:

Civil War re-enactors are, of course, well known, having been famously portrayed as oddball history nuts in Tony Horwitz's book "Confederates in the Attic." But the re-enactment of battles from more recent wars like World War II and Vietnam, with some participants playing Nazis or Vietcong, has a different flavor. For real survivors, some whose memories are still raw, the safe historical distance collapses.

The events also raise troubling questions. Is this an acceptable representation of war or a parody? Many people would shudder at the thought of taking an M-16 and donning fatigues to go on a fake search-and-destroy mission to honor those who fought in Vietnam. And surely, joining a simulated German Panzer unit to roam the woods in a kübelwagen and shoot blanks is a far cry from more traditional ways of commemorating World War II.

I wished that the article had delved into some of these issues more deeply, but this is still a decent introduction to the issue for people who haven't, say, read Tony Horwitz's delightful book Confederates in the Attic.

Update: Kieran Healy has a Crooked Timber post looking at the number of New York Times stories since 1980 that mentioned D-Day.

Posted by Ed at June 5, 2004 10:46 AM
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