Clicking through the TV channels one Sunday during the holidays, I stumbled by pure luck onto a magnificent History Channel documentary titled “World War II From Space.”
In riveting detail, it presented the whole narrative of World War II — the ascendency of the Third Reich; the U.S. entry into the conflict; the major battles in Europe, the Pacific and North Africa; the defeat of the Nazi war machine; and the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
For two hours, or possibly longer, I sat captive to the unfolding story of the greatest, most costly, most significant conflict in my lifetime.
Apart from the large picture, there were startling details, such as the fact that Adolf Hitler, a significant player in the tragedy, besides being a mass murderer, was an amphetamine addict in the disabling advanced stages of syphilis.
I was only 6 years old in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, initiating the war in Europe, and 12 in September 1945, at the time of Japan’s unconditional surrender on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri.
For a child in those years, the conflict was defined by gas and tire rationing, the sale of war bonds and small acts of household patriotism — the saving of foil, tin cans and cooking grease. Also the radio voice of Edward R. Murrow, and arrows on newspaper maps showing troop movements across the borders of strange lands.
On that recent morning, as I watched the whole narrative play out on television, I realized how little of sense or use I had been taught — certainly in elementary school, but also in high school or even in college — about an event that claimed an estimated 40 million to 50 million civilian and 22 million to 25 million military dead and transformed the international landscape in ways that endure to this day.
But the educational failure was not just a problem of my time.
My wife and I have two daughters — both now adults, engaged in demanding professional careers. They were capable students, and they attended schools of excellent reputation.
In 1984, when they were 13 and 14, our family moved temporarily to Paris. During our year there, we took a fortnight’s summer trip to the French coast and the D-Day landing beaches.
I will remember always the first landmark we saw of that historic event.
Beside a street in a small town in Normandy was a World War II Allied tank. Beside it, on a simple placard, was the phrase HERE, ON JUNE 6, 1944, BEGAN THE LIBERATION OF EUROPE.
We visited as many of the important sites as our days allowed: Omaha Beach; Pointe du Hoc; the town of St. Mere Eglise, where a parachutist of the 82nd Airborne Division hung up for days on the church steeple, feigning death, but ultimately surviving.
Also, for sobering perspective, the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.
In trying to tell the girls what I knew of the Normandy invasion, and the campaign that followed, I was brought face to face with the paucity of my own understanding.
I’m compelled to think that the program I watched on that Sunday before New Year’s Eve should be a standard offering in the curriculum for schoolchildren of appropriate age throughout the U.S.
To that end, I have contacted the History Channel, which aired the documentary, and October Films, the show’s London-based producer, asking if there might be a possibility of wider distribution for educational use.