No. 16: July-December 2016

Christophe Wasinski

Combat Legacy of the

Second World War

Academic Foresights

How do you analyze the present situation of the combat legacy of the Second World War?

The Second World War and its combats are still the object of all kinds of celebrations. One can firstly think about the great official celebrations, such as those who took place in Normandy to commemorate the landing of 1944. At another level, a more popular one, one can also think of the role played on the subject by movies as Pearl Harbor, Private Ryan, Fury, by a television series like Band of Brother, by the video game Call of Duty, by the World War 2 Magazine or by military small-scale models of the Second World War produced by brands like Italeri, Revell or Tamiya. A quick look at the website is also revealing of this phenomenon. It didn’t took us long to locate objects directly related to the Second World War on it: an empty box of .30 caliber ammunition for M-1 rifle, a We Are All in this Together World War II Monopoly game or plastic small figurines representing American and German soldiers. At the same time, the Second World War is still the object of multiple celebrations within armed forces. Several ships of the US Navy either bear names of battles of the Second World War, as the Iwo Jima, the Leyte Gulf or the Bataan, or the names of officers and politicians who became famous during this conflict, as the Nimitz, the Roosevelt, and the Eisenhower air carriers. Another example is given by the historic analysis of the battles of the Second World War easily accessible via web sites of the US Army, as that of the Combat Studies Institute de Fort Leavenworth or of the Center for Military History based at Fort McNair. In February 2016, the death of the last men involved in the episode of the Mount Suribachi during the battle of Iwo Jima also drew attention in the US Marine community [1].

Without question, the Second World War is not the only conflict which is the object of remembrances in America or in Europe. However, it is noticeable that other past conflicts are not celebrated in an identical way. On that matter, it is especially interesting to contrast the case of the Second World War with the one of the First World War. Historians have showed to what extent the story of the World War I evolved in time.[2] At first, just after the end of the conflict, the events are essentially told from a diplomatic and strategic point of view. Later on, narrative began to center on the real-life experience and sufferings of the soldiers in trenches. In this context, the World War I is more and more often described as a useless slaughter devoid of political relevance. The Great War is thus a “bad war”.

The case of the Second World War is totally different. As historians underlined, in particular for the Americans, it is popularly seen as a “good war”.[3] The enemies (Fascists and Nazis) were clearly identified (unlike in Vietnam). The cause, supposed to consist mainly in the defence of democracy and human rights, is thought as morally justified. The exterminating practices (especially those turned against the Jews in Europe), although they had no impact in the diplomatic and strategic decisions of the allies during the conflict, serve to strengthen the vision according to which the use of force was inherently a good thing. In the long run, in the United States and in some European States, the master narrative of the good war became a point of reference in the national history. Of course, historians who analysed the “good war” showed themselves critical against this myth. For example, they remind us that this war for democracy and human rights was among other led by colonial empires and that the United States practiced the racial segregation during the 1940s (even in its military ranks). These historians emphasized the necessity to preserve a critical approach when the Second World War is evoked.

Besides, the question of the national reference is not the whole story. The fact is that the Second World War is also the origin of a renewed and particularly destructive warfare design. Numerous military techniques were conceived, refined, or used for the first time during this war. It was the case of the missiles with the German V-1 and V-2 and of the atomic bombs. It was also the case of the air bombing, with the routinization of carpet bombing and closed air support. It is as well during this war that the idea of large armoured and mechanised operation was firstly applied on a large scale. The use of the aircraft carriers and submarines are two more examples of military techniques becoming common with the Second World War. Next comes the development of special operations units, such as commando squads parachuted behind the enemy lines in Europe. Let us not forget either that it is during the Second World War that the light automatic guns spread wide among soldiers. The ancestor of the (in)famous Kalashnikov, the German Sturmgewehr 44, was born during this period.

It is not the intention of this contribution to assert that the Second World War systematically introduced technical “revolutions” in the field of military affairs. Actually, several of the aforesaid techniques had already been experimented during World War I, or even before for some of them (submarines during the American Civil War is an illustration). But, in many respects, the Second World War established a “new start” regarding military violence. In a rather straightforward way, in the collective imagination, the beginning of the strategic modernity begins with the Second World War, not with the First War. In Europe and in the United States, the First World War evokes trenches which are perceived as the symbol of an operational failure. It is to the Second World War that it falls to reinstate the prestige and the efficiency of weapons. The problem, as it was correctly synthesized by Martin Shaw, is that: « the legacies of WWII still define maximum destructive potentials which continue to haunt world politics ».[4]

In your opinion, how will the situation likely evolve over the next five years?

Even if the American and European armies were affected by peacekeeping operations during the 1990s (the so-called « operations other than wars ») and by counter-insurgency missions during the 2000s, many among them preserve, adapt and intend to renew their « classical » tools (like bombers and armored vehicles). We thus make the hypothesis that the Second World War will remain a valid point of reference in international security in the next 5 years future.

Actually, in spite of the numerous technical innovations that have taken place inside the world of defense since 1945, the Second World War continued to haunt contemporary militaries. At the practical level, officers and security experts learned the lessons of this conflict to adapt the military doctrines for the Cold War. On the European theater, the military doctrines of the USSR (the Sokolovski doctrine and the Operational Manoeuver Groups) and of the United States and NATO (Airland Battle) mainly consisted in integrating tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and missiles in a Blitzkrieg-inspired operational frame. In the United States, one of the designers of this doctrinal thinking was General William E. Depuy, a veteran tremendously impressed by his Second World War experience. Trusting their operational experience, he will favor the exchanges with his German counterparts during the 1970s. The whole reflection on Airland Battle will then be applied during the Gulf War of 1991. This conflict will then serve as starting point in the debate on the existence of a so-called Revolution in the Military Affairs. A few years later, the concept of Blitzkrieg made another forceful comeback with the appearance of a reflection centered on the role of the air power and its capacity to paralyze opponents. It is within this frame of thinking that the concept of Show and Awe will emerge. It will also be put into practice during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. More recently, and again in the United States, an AirSea Battle doctrine appeared. By means of ships and of sophisticated aircrafts, this strategic narrative replays a conflict between powers in the Pacific region. This time however, China and Iran are rather aimed than Japan. Whatever, the operational scenario very much looked like the air-sea war of the 1940s in the Pacific. In 2014, the US Department of Defense made public his intention to develop a new strategy called « Third Offset ».[5] The Airland Battle doctrine and the 1991 Gulf War served to contextualise this project. It makes very probable the continuing relevance of the experience of the Second World War in the near future.

Of course, the point is not to deny innovation in the military field. Drones of attack are a proof that novelty is a reality. It is also not to be forgotten that the counterinsurgency doctrine which were used in Afghanistan and in Iraq during 2000s are inspired by other experiences that those of the Second World War (colonial warfare, Algeria, Malaysia or Vietnam to name but a few). But, next to all of this, armed forces keep on aligning material (armoured vehicles, submarines, bombers, missiles or assault rifles) which are genealogically directly connected to the operations of the Second World War. Actually, whenever possible, armed forces of the industrialized States resort to the “good old techniques” inspired by the Second World War. With some accommodation, these techniques are still largely used in the context of contemporary interventions around the world (be it Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, or Syria) and will certainly remained in use in the years to come.

Last but not least, at a more symbolic level, the imagination of the Second World War also contributed to the maintenance of the status of the status of the armed forces in spite of the resounding defeats of the Cold War (Indochina, Algeria, Vietnam). Considering the difficulties of the American and European armies in contemporary wars, this situation can maybe repeat itself in the years to come.

What are the structural long-term perspectives?

First of all, it must be remembered that the Second World War was a bloodthirsty orgy on battlefields and in cities. The existence of pernicious political regimes (those of the Fascists and Nazis), in spite of their malfeasance, makes it difficult to fully account why the Second World War is the object of so much celebrations. The military violence of this conflict could (or should) on the opposite have inspired the regret not to have been able to avoid such a cataclysm, the sorrow for the human (civilian and military) lives lost from both the Axis and the allied military actions, the sadness for the brutalization of the selves felt necessary to eliminate the enemy regimes, and the desire to banish the recourse to such inhuman techniques in the future.

This last point is not as naïve as it may look like. Regularly, wars have generated resentment against some categories of weapons.[6] The poison gas were stigmatized after the First World War. They were also the object of a ban in the form of an international treaty. Several mass-killing weapons which were developed or improved during the colonial wars and the Vietnam War were also stigmatized. Some of these, antipersonnel land mines and cluster-bombs, were also the object of bans in the form of treaties. By comparison, the majority of the material used on battlefields during the Second World War are described as “conventional” or “classical”. In the security jargon, it is especially a way to distinguish them from nuclear, biological, chemical weapons or those connected to guerrilla warfare. In a sense, this equipment is also “conventional” or “classical” by opposition to “abnormal” or “unacceptable”. A nuance is nevertheless necessary concerning the nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapons, another important inheritance of the Second World War, have mostly been thought as a special weapon due to their tremendous deterring power (and they have also been subjected to diverse international agreements). This being said, the ownership of nuclear weapons by the powers is always considered by most of the security experts as (maybe regrettable but) useful.[7] Yet, in last instance, this utility rests on the “experiences” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In other words, it is difficult to find something structurally able to comprehensively subvert the legacy of the Second World War in the long term. The combat practices and weapons of the Second World War are often considered legitimate, a situation that will probably remain the same for some time. The Second World War should thus be considered as a sustaining fulcrum for the military institutions and the industries of armament. Again, this is not to say that no change has taken place since the 1940s. Among other, weapons are generally more accurate than before. It is neither to say the Second World War is the only point of reference. The Napoleonic wars, the American civil war, the Algerian War, the “Malayan Emergency”, the Vietnam War or the Gulf War of 1991 are other points of reference. But besides the density of its popular remembrances and operational lessons learned, the Second World War is also important because its presence is embodied in the everyday life of the soldiers who are in charge of tanks, bombers and submarines. In a certain sense, these objects are the structural background necessary to sustain the Second World War legacy in the long term.


[1] Matthew L. Schehl, « Marine who led WWI charge up Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima dies », Marine Corps Times, February 17, 2016 (

[2] Brian Bond (ed.), The First World War and British Military History, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1991.

[3] Studs Terkel, « The Good War ». An Oral History of World War Two, New York, Pantheon Books, 1984 ; Michael C.C. Adams, The Best War Ever. America and World War II, Baltimore and London, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. For the Soviet case, see: Catherine Merridale, Ivan's War. Life and Death in the Red Army 1939-1945, New York, Metropolitan Books, 2006.

[4] Martin Shaw, « Still the Key Reference Point: the Second World War, the International System and Contemporary Warfare », Critical Studies on Security, vol. 3, 2016, n°3, p. 287.

[5] Secretary of Defense Speech, « Reagan National Defense Forum Keynote », November 15 2014 (consulted on

[6] Richard Price, « Reversing the Gun Sights: Transnational Civil Society Targets Land Mines », International Organization, vol. 52, n°3, Summer 1998, pp. 613-644 ; Richard Price, « A Genealogy of the Chemical Weapons Taboo », International Organization, vol. 49, n°1, Winter 1995, pp. 73-703 ; Eric Prokosch, The Technology of Killing.  A Military and Political History of Antipersonnel Weapons, London, Zed Books, 1995.

[7] For a critical perspective, see: David Mutimer, The Weapons State. Proliferation and the Framing of Security, Boulder and London, Lynne Rienner, 2000.


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Christophe Wasinski is professor at the Université libre de Bruxelles (Belgium) where he is member of the center ‘Recherche et Enseignement en Politique Internationale’ (REPI). His work focuses on security and war related questions from a critical perspective. His articles were among others published in Critique, Cultures & Conflits, Etudes Internationales, International Political Sociology and Security Dialogue.

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