Last week we were reminded, over and over, of the epic invasion of Europe, seventy-five years ago. D-Day was that rare unequivocal thing in history. It was a straight-up clash of good versus evil. There was no nuance. The troops who died coming across the beaches and out of the sky and into France were liberators, pure and simple. They people they had come to kill were occupiers and oppressors in service to one of history’s most brutal and murderous regimes. They deserved whatever they got.
All this accounts for the nostalgia. Things are seldom so clear cut.
Since Hitler perished by his own hand, there have been other murderous tyrants who escaped justice. Mao Tse Tung and Pol Pot come to mind. And Stalin. Plus some small bore killers like those who conducted “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia. Hard to believe there will not be more. Riding the world of Hitler did not cleanse it of evil.
And you have to wonder … if another Hitler (or Mao or Stalin) were to appear tomorrow, what would the world do about it? if anything.
There was hope after the catastrophe of World War II, that the nations of the world might organize themselves and get about putting an end to war. They created something called the United Nations and much hope was invested in it. The UN would be the agency for the peaceful settling international disputes that might otherwise turn into wars and genocides. But Mao, Pol Pot, and the others went about their business of slaughter unhampered by the UN.
The UN has turned into a debating society and the debates are usually resolved in favor of various anti-semitic regimes and against Israel. The UN has had its opportunities to do something about genocide. In Bosnia and Rwanda. Both times, it failed. Nor has it been able to enforce, in Syria, its own ban on the use of chemical weapons. The UN headquarters building on the east side of Manhattan is a monument to wishful thinking.
At around the same time the UN was being born, and at a less etherial and sentimental level, the nations of western Europe joined with the U.S. to establish a military alliance. NATO wasn’t about debating whether the Soviets should or should not invade those parts of Europe they hand’t already enslaved. It was designed to stop them, by force, from doing so. To the point of using nuclear weapons. If necessary.
It worked, though there were times when Western will seemed on the verge of faltering. During the Reagan years, especially, when according to informed opinion, the Americans were being dangerously provocative and Europe might be better off making its own peace with the Soviets.
Still … for nearly half a century, the threat of retaliation – force, if you will – worked. In the end, the Soviet Union collapsed. Unfortunately, it did not take the delusions of Marxism down with it.
So waging the Cold War robustly turned out to have been the right way to prevent another word war, one that might have been even more catastrophic than the first two … combined. A nuclear exchange between the Soviets and NATO (to include, emphatically, the U.S.) would have resulted in casualties beyond counting. Certainly into the many millions.
But it didn’t happen. And not because of the UN. And not because of cultural exchanges and good will visits of the sort Bernie Sanders once indulged in. The great nuclear exchange, followed by the long, cold nuclear winter did not happen because the U.S. and its allies were ready and able to resist.
D-Day was a decisive and heroic moment in an awful and necessary war. It was necessary because the nations that could have stopped Hitler sooner lacked the will to do so. There was no D-Day moment in the Cold War and this is a blessing. But there is a lesson for the world in the success of NATO. The same lesson that the soldiers who took Omaha Beach from the sea and St. Mere Eglise from the air taught the world on D-Day.
The end of the Cold War most likely did not mean the end of war and genocides. The Chinese are said to hold a many as a million souls in the kind of captivity could be described as “concentration camps.” The end of the Cold War does not mean that the Russians are suddenly housebroken. And, then, there is Islamic fundamentalism.
The ceremonies and remembrances surrounding D-Day were moving and necessary. The bravery on the beaches and among the paratroopers who dropped into Normandy must be honored forever. But they should come with a warning label.
Only the dead have seen the end of war.
Geoffrey Norman is a former editor of Esquire magazine and is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Weekly Standard and National Review. He has authored more than 15 books and remains active shaping public policy discussions. He lives in Vermont.