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This V-J Day, let’s learn some lessons from WWII

Written by Derek Monson

September 2, 2022

In August 1945, Americans joyously celebrated the end of World War II with their families and friends. In mid-August of that year, Japan announced that it would unconditionally surrender to Allied forces, citing the threat of American atomic bombs, which had killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese people in just three days, as a primary reason.

This week marks the 77th anniversary of V-J Day, Sept. 2, 1945, when representatives of the Japanese Empire signed surrender documents, officially ending WWII.

Such a historical marker merits somber reflection about this devastating military conflict.

Nearly 420,000 Americans died because of WWII. For perspective, this number of casualties was more than 40 times the number of American deaths from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. The length of the war unleashed the indiscriminate bombing of millions of civilians on both sides of the conflict – bringing the terrible destruction of war from the front lines to the front doorsteps of countless people across Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands.

WWII holds some striking parallels to military conflict raging today – and some monumental differences. WWII began because authoritarian dictatorships in Germany, Japan and Italy attacked and invaded neighboring countries. Similarly, the war in Ukraine began when an authoritarian Russian regime invaded its neighbor Ukraine. But WWII began before the age of nuclear weapons, whereas the invasion of Ukraine was undertaken by a Russian regime that holds nuclear weapons.

Both military conflicts have inflicted – and continue to inflict, in the invasion of Ukraine – devastating destruction and death of civilian populations. Thankfully, the casualty count in Ukraine will not approach that of WWII.

A downstream impact of the Allied victory in WWII was the spread of the ideas of American democracy – with broad voting rights as the basis for establishing representative government – and capitalism and governance across the globe. It remains to be seen what the downstream impact of the Ukrainian conflict will be regarding American democracy.

Sutherland Institute scholar Jon Ammons wrote, concerning the invasion of Ukraine:

The conflict in Ukraine constitutes terrifying and tragic evidence that opponents of democracy will not be satisfied until the current global order – namely, the supremacy of democratic rule and the role of America as the leader of the free world – has been weakened and eventually toppled. This conflict of ideas, which has been raging since ancient Athenians established the world’s first democracy, will continue to rage until democratic principles prevail beyond the West.

As we remember the anniversary of the end of WWII, we should recognize that wars – an undeniable and ongoing fact of human history – have for millennia been driven, at least in part, by different views and values regarding the best way to govern people. In modern terms, this means that as long as American democracy and authoritarian regimes continue to co-exist in the world, armed military conflict remains a real and ongoing possibility.

This does not reject the additional possibility, of course, that some wars can be prevented, or at least minimalized. Savvy diplomacy and “peace through strength,” for instance, have proven historically to be ways to ensure that disagreement doesn’t automatically become armed conflict.

But both WWII and current wars illustrate the reality that armed conflict is always possible. Human nature, as revealed by a study of human history, makes it so. However, while we may not be able to prevent every armed conflict from beginning, we as a people and a nation can learn the lessons of that history to minimize both the number and reach of the devastation of war. And that means fewer lives lost to armed conflict, fewer families devastated by the senseless death of a loved one, and fewer parents who have to bury their children because their nation sent them off to war.

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