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Why Study WWII?

Marines of the US 10th Army


Photo source: National Park Service - (National Archives)

World War Two is the defining tragedy and pivotal period of the 20th Century. The lessons are many and the changes were vast. World War Two teaches us that in modern conflict geography still matters, that training, organization, supply and communication are crucial, and that technology and surprise can be decisive.

When World War Two began, Europe had been the center of world power for over four centuries. The British navy, the French army and the German air force were acknowledged as the most powerful military forces on earth. When the war was over, the United States navy and air force, and the Soviet Russian army were the most powerful military forces. The power shift to the United States and the Soviet Union would define world power politics for the next 45 years. Slightly less obvious, was that the war broke European domination of China and India, leaving those countries free to begin the arduous process of nation building that would lead these countries to be significant powers in the 21st Century. The huge Nazi effort, and to a lesser extent the Soviet effort, to commit genocide against the Jews greatly added to the impetus to create a Jewish state in Palestine. The creation of Israel has been a more or less constant source of hostility between Muslim and Jews and their United States ally.

Domestically, World War Two fostered dramatic changes by putting an end to the Great Depression, by placing women into the work force on a massive scale, and by beginning the process of racially integrating the armed forces. The technological changes were just as far reaching as the political and social changes. Nearly everywhere the improved air forces were decisive. On land, the combatant with the dominate fighter plane force allowed their dive bombers to wreck havoc on enemy strong points, communications, supplies and reinforcements. This in turn, allowed self propelled fighting vehicles and mechanized infantry to practice Blitzkrieg style penetrating and encircling mobile warfare, often against superior land forces. At sea, surprise attacks on battleships moored at Taranto and Pearl Harbor by aircraft resulted in devastating battleship loses, and repeatedly battleships caught in the open sea without adequate aircraft protection were badly damaged or destroyed by enemy aircraft. In antisubmarine warfare the use of convoys helped, but was still less than satisfactory. Only with the addition of long range land based patrol aircraft, coupled with carrier based aircraft were the odds strongly tilted against the submarine. Only in the area of strategic bombing were results, although highly destructive, less than clearly decisive. And with the advent of nuclear bombs delivered by strategic bombers in the closing days of the war, the question became moot. World War Two saw the introduction of radar and electronic warfare, sonar, hand held antitank weapons, the jet engine, the cruise missile, and the smart bomb. The war also saw the first wide spread use of antibiotics, blood plasma, synthetic insecticides and two-way radios in warfare. And finally, World War Two saw the creation of the V-2 rocket, the first vehicle capable of reaching outer space, and when coupled with nuclear weapons, the first weapons system likely to destroy the human race.

In very large measure, studying World War Two explains how our human world came to be so different from the first three decades of the 20th Century, and how the United States in particular, shed the belief that the Atlantic and Pacific oceans could insulate that country from the negative effects of world affairs.

~Jonathan Tracy