The Tyranny of the Main Effort

Visiting the National Air and Space Museum last month, we were surprised to see a new film about D-Day in the Museum’s IMAX Theater. Opting for a double-feature with “Mission to Hubble,” we bought tickets for “D-Day 3D: Normandy 1944.” The fill was was well-produced, as you would expect from IMAX, and served as a fine general introduction to Operation OVERLORD for those only vaguely familiar with the events on and around June 6th, 1944.

The film itself – along with the more recent remembrances around the 70th Anniversary of the landings – struck a bit of a raw nerve, one that drives this blog and has not yet been fully articulated. Let me explain.

The popular history of World War II – and, really, of modern conflict in general – suffers from what I call “Main Effort Disorder,” which I define as our innate desire to capture a single linear narrative and use it to describe or explain an entire conflict. For WWII, we have two separate but interlocked main-effort narratives. The first is what I will call the “Second Front Narrative,” that runs from the Fall of France, to the Battle of Britain, to the fight against the Afrika Korps in North Africa, the Invasion of Sicily, Anzio, D-Day in Normandy, the Bulge, Hürtgen Forest, to the Rhine and German Surrender. The second narrative, the War in the Pacific, starts with Pearl Harbor, goes to Midway, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Micronesia, Leyte, Iwo Jima, Saipan, Okinawa, and Hiroshima.

Now, if you are like me, you are probably already sitting up and hollering “but what about…” Indeed. But there you have the problem. The thrust of our history attempts to explain the entire war in the course of about 20 to 24 major events or campaigns. Of course that is oversimplified: this was, in fact, a World War. The narratives themselves are not wrong per se, and even awareness of thee events is discouragingly rare among those who never lived through it (read: anyone born after 1944.)

But we are in danger of allowing future generations to oversimplify, misunderstand, and misinterpret the conflict that forged the modern world. We cannot allow that: such misinterpretation invites the repetition of mistakes that we as a nation and as humanity can ill-afford to make.

For that reason it is time for us to stop repackaging into neat two-volume sets the entirety of World War Two, much less the entire twenty-one year spasm that wracked the planet between the Guns of August and V-J Day. As historians we have to stand up and say that World War II was neither simple nor boring. Its corer narratives offer a brilliant story, but the real insights come from the incredible stories and events that happened off the beaten path.

This is essential: anyone who understands the Churchillian story of the Second World War can look at the Main Effort narratives and still be utterly mystified that the world turned out the way it did. The key to understanding the events that followed in the four decades after 1945 does not lay in the main effort: rather, it lies in the stories that are almost always overlooked when someone talks about World War Two, and an argument can be made that these things return to bite us precisely because we have forgotten to talk about them, to understand the history, and to address where it took the region.

If those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it, we have failed as a people to understand World War Two, and some form of incremental repetition awaits. Our Job as historians is to head that off. And so we embark on exposing the bits and pieces of the grand conflict that add understanding to the world we live in today.

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