Today marks the 76th anniversary of D-Day: the day Allied powers initiated the ground invasion to liberate Western Europe from Nazi domination.
Though the United States had been involved in World War II for years — sending Lend-Lease aid to the United Kingdom and Soviet Union; “island-hopping” in the Pacific; fighting in North Africa; and participating in Europe’s bombing — it’s D-Day and the campaign it initiated that crystallized the war as a so-called “Good War” in the American imagination.
More than any other episode from World War II, D-Day permeates popular American culture. In Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s 1998 World War II epic, the first twenty-minutes are given over to a grisly, if ultimately triumphant, reenactment of the fighting on Omaha Beach. Countless videogame series, from Medal of Honor to Call of Duty, have recreated the storming of Normandy, putting players in the roles of infantrymen or paratroopers who slaughter Nazi soldiers in the thousands.
These cultural products teach Americans and millions of others around the globe that the United States can — indeed must — wield armed force for the good of the world.
Cultural representations of D-Day, in short, provide a justifying logic for the American empire. It’s no surprise that, according to Google N-Gram, mentions of D-Day increase in the 1990s. After the United States “won” the Cold War, Americans returned to a pivotal moment in their empire to justify its continuation. This was particularly true for Baby Boomers like Spielberg.
Saving Private Ryan is not only about the horrors of war; it’s also an argument for American empire, implicitly claiming that if the United States doesn’t rule the world, some other, more nefarious, country will.
On the 76th anniversary of D-Day, we should take a moment to remember the millions of working men and women from all Allied countries who fought and died to defeat fascism. But we must also reflect on the imperialist meaning that D-Day has assumed in our present context. If the last seventy-six years have taught us anything, it is that no country — and certainly not the United States — can be trusted to rule the world.
To honor the memories of those who perished in the struggle against fascism, we could do little better than to combat imperial hubris wherever we find it, including at home.