What a Loss to the Collective Memory

According to HistoryNet.com, by late 1945 over 12 million Americans were in military service. This group represented approximately nine percent of the U.S. population at the time, while including none of the millions of Americans who contributed to the war effort in factories, resource collections, war bond drives, and many other capacities. The conflict is known as a “total war,” because its influence permeated into nearly all major aspects of shared society and individual daily life for those living in the participating countries. (And, as the term “world war” suggests, participating countries included most of those on Earth. Besides which, even the nominally neutral countries experienced dramatic effects as well.)

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century the U.S., and much of the Western world by extension, took for granted the basic assumptions and collective experiences the war etched into their populations. Never has this been more clear than now when, in the U.S. presidential election of 2016, Donald Trump found a large constituency responsive to withering critiques of fundamental aspects of the post-war/early Cold War international order. The necessity of U.S. global leadership – a phrase which here means the need for the U.S. to best approximate a world uber-authority in the anarchic global polity – is now a major question in U.S. politics. And around the world, resurgent nationalist parties and political movements are finding purchase in populations that doubt the value of supranational organizations such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the European Union, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Some of the bafflement of world’s so-called elite leadership – meaning people who are rich, politically engaged and powerful, highly educated, and often aristocratic – at these changes is surely due to their lack of understanding that many people have not inherited the assumptions and collective experiences that were forged in the war and dominated the post-war political and economic landscape. The consequences of this lack of inheritance have been compounded by the astounding arrogance of the Liberal Democratic order – most apparent in numerous ill-conceived and poorly executed military engagements and the total lack of accountability or serious self-reflection following the catastrophic 2008 financial crisis.

Remembrance of the past never remains static. Instead, it changes with the moment and with the state of the world and with those doing the remembering. This is particularly true in large democracies with diffuse media to fracture the transmission of information to voters and politicians. It stands to reason that, with the deaths of those who experienced the trials of World War II and the deaths of those only one generation removed, the past will change as well.