The 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion comes as chaos in Ukraine stirs troubling memories of European aggression and President Barack Obama seeks to articulate his view of the U.S. role in protecting liberty and maintaining order in the world.
What has become clear in retrospect is that D-Day and the war it helped to end were unparalleled in human history for the scale of the enterprise and the magnitude of the losses. The generations that grew up in the years after the war have taken as a given that the United States is capable of great feats to defend its values and its allies, but nothing since then has approached the total war waged to defeat Germany and Japan. The nation committed itself to the effort because World War II was an existential threat to the very idea of democracy in the world.
The story of D-Day has become part of our cultural patrimony. It is a familiar one: how bad weather forced Eisenhower to delay the invasion by a day; how carnage at Omaha Beach reddened the waters; how Allied troops at Omaha, Utah, Juno, Sword and Gold beaches worked their way inland, inch by inch, and the beaches became staging areas for a massive logistical achievement, bringing in troops and materiel for the liberation of Europe.
The story has been told and retold in histories and movies. The graves are still there on the stark Normandy coast. It is part of the story America tells about itself that Americans are capable of great things such as the D-Day invasion.
Since those days, America has cast itself in the role of keeper of world peace, but the luster of the role has not matched the glory attached to D-Day. Too often we have misread history and inserted ourselves in conflicts that left behind chaos and carnage. Vietnam and Iraq were the two great post-World War II disasters, but there have been other misguided interventions, undertaken to resist perceived threats but crushing democratic aspirations and fomenting war. Guatemala, Iran, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama and Chile have all suffered the consequences of American vainglory and ignorance.
The pendulum continues to swing. President Bill Clinton was slow to react to the genocide in Bosnia, but when he did he helped bring about the demise of Serbian thugs. He failed to act to halt genocide in Rwanda.
President George W. Bush ushered in an era of instability in the Middle East by invading Iraq and botching the war in Afghanistan. Now, Obama is struggling to get his footing in a post-Afghan war world that, nevertheless, remains full of threats.
For the United States to assume the role of police officer to the world requires a degree of moral arrogance that few are comfortable with. The U.S. cannot pretend it is a 19th-century imperial power. Nor do the threats that exist today represent the existential threats posed by Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. And yet there are times when the only thing standing between human rights catastrophe and the deterioration of order on a global scale is the intervention of a strong power. That is the United States.
If the United States is going to exercise the kind of arrogance that comes with assumption of global leadership, it must also practice a high degree of humility, questioning its own judgment, carefully calibrating its actions. At present, Obama has calculated that Russian intervention in Ukraine is fraught with difficulties for Russia sufficient that President Vladimir Putin will be restrained without an overly aggressive response from the West. The U.S. response has been firm but cautious, not backing Putin into a corner, but letting him know his actions will have a cost.
Not every challenge requires a D-Day, and we can be thankful for that. The purpose now is to try to prevent conditions around the world from deteriorating to the degree that megalomaniacal tyrants have an opportunity to rise up as they did in the years before D-Day 70 years ago today.
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