A Paean, in Stone and Bronze, to Those Who Vanquished Evil
By Rick Atkinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 2004; Page W01
When a steadily shrinking legion of veterans musters on the Mall this weekend to dedicate the National World War II Memorial, rarely will so few be owed so much by so many.
The size and central location of the memorial -- 7 1/2 acres, midway between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial -- imply the monumental nature of the war it commemorates: the largest, most catastrophic event in human history, at least since the Great Flood.
From the German invasion of Poland in 1939 until the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay in 1945, the war lasted 2,193 days and claimed an average of 27,600 lives every day, or 1,150 an hour, or 19 a minute, or one death every three seconds. In the time it takes to read this paragraph aloud, 10 people perished in World War II -- an estimated total of 60 million.
The new memorial is 21st century America's effort to capture, in granite and bronze and gilt lettering, the 20th century's central myth, "a vast imagining of a primal time" -- in the words of novelist John Updike -- "when good and evil contended for the planet, a tale of Troy whose angles are infinite and whose central figures never fail to amaze us with their size, their theatricality, their sweep."
Inexorably, the day is approaching when not a single human alive has a personal recollection of the war, which then will slide fully into mythology, history and collective memory. Although 16.4 million Americans served during the war, fewer than 5 million remain alive; the youngest survivors now are in their late seventies, and they are passing at the rate of 1,100 a day.
The memorial dedicated this weekend is part of that mnemonic migration, a tribute not only to those who served, or the 291,000 U.S. battle deaths, or the 670,000 U.S. wounded, or the tens of millions who labored in factories and fields and dockyards. It is an effort to convey, to generations hence, that the war was a struggle both about territory and, as the historian Gerhard L. Weinberg has written, "about who would live and control the resources of the globe, and which peoples would vanish entirely because they were believed inferior or undesirable by the victors."
It was a war that ranged across six continents, from those titanic, three-syllable battlefields that still serve as historical mileposts -- Stalingrad, Coral Sea, Anzio, Normandy -- to obscure fights in improbable settings rarely associated with the Second World War, places like the Aleutians, Madagascar, Syria and Darwin, Australia.
The war's origins lay in the 20th century's other global catastrophe, World War I, and in lingering resentments, unquenched hatreds and unresolved rivalries that metastasized through the 1920s and 1930s. In Asia, the growth of Japanese nationalism and militarism led Tokyo to seize huge areas in Manchuria and north-central China. The parallel rise of fascism in Italy and national socialism in Germany also fueled aggression and brutal repression. Italian imperial ambitions in the 1930s stretched as far as Abyssinia in East Africa, while Germany annexed Austria and then swallowed part of Czechoslovakia through raw intimidation.
With Germany's invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, the conflagration began. Within four weeks of that blitzkrieg attack by 60 German divisions, the lightning war had killed 140,000 Polish soldiers, as well as 25,000 civilians in various bombing attacks. An additional 10,000 civilians -- mostly middle-class professionals -- had been rounded up and murdered, and 22 million Poles now belonged to the Third Reich. "Take a good look around Warsaw," Adolf Hitler told journalists during a visit to the shattered Polish capital. "That is how I can deal with any European city."
France and Great Britain had declared war against the German aggressors Sept. 3, but fighting subsided for six months while Hitler consolidated his winnings and plotted his next move. That came in early April 1940, when Wehrmacht troops seized Denmark and attacked Norway. A month later, 136 German divisions swept into the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. Winston S. Churchill -- a short, stout, lisping politician of indomitable will and linguistic genius, who on May 10 became the British prime minister -- told President Franklin D. Roosevelt, "The small countries are simply smashed up, one by one, like matchwood."
The fascist powers yoked themselves together in a murderous alliance known as the Axis. Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, struggled to obliterate British resistance and began a systematic campaign to exterminate those considered inferior or undesirable, a holocaust that cost the lives of 6 million European Jews and countless gypsies, homosexuals, socialists, communists and others who contradicted Aryan ideals.
The American war can be summarized in a paragraph: After the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the United States -- in alliance with London, Moscow and others -- resolved to first crush Germany, the strongest of the Axis partners, and to then defeat Japan. A brutal but successful seven-month campaign to occupy North Africa -- and thus regain control of the Mediterranean Sea -- was followed in mid-1943 by invasions of Sicily and the Italian mainland. Island-hopping thrusts in the Central and Southwest Pacific brought U.S. air power within range of Japan, with devastating results. The invasion of France on June 6, 1944, and southern France two months later, squeezed Germany between the Anglo-Americans from the West and the Russian juggernaut from the East. Adolf Hitler's suicide, on April 30, 1945, was followed eight days later by Germany's unconditional surrender. Japan followed suit after a new American weapon, dubbed the atomic bomb, obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August.
Such summaries hardly do justice to the cause. It has been suggested that war, next to love, has most captured the world's imagination, and World War II remains particularly compelling for both its magnitude and for the clear moral imperative in the struggle against evil.
The Axis powers "failed because they repudiated human values and human faith, and from that repudiation flowed all the consequences that led to final defeat," historian Henry Steele Commager once wrote. "Against wickedness and terror and hatred, the free peoples of the world fought back. Their courage was a match for the force of the enemy, their ingenuity for his cunning, their free industry for his slavery, their faith for his cynicism."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
A view from atop the Washington Monument shows crowds visiting the new memorial. About 800,000 visitors are expected for the four-day festival accompanying the dedication of the memorial.
(Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)