Allied Servicemen and Women in Paris Celebrating the Japanese Surrender (1945)

Allied Servicemen and Women in Paris Celebrating the Japanese Surrender (1945)

May 8, 1945--V-E Day--saw the end of World War II in Europe. The war dragged on in the Pacific for a few more months until Japan surrendered in August. Thus 2015 is the 70th anniversary of the end of that brutal conflict.

The people of the United States suffered during World War II. Thousands of Americans lost a son, husband, father, brother, or other relative. And some lost a wife, daughter, or sister. The chart below shows the number of military and civilian deaths during the war. The U.S. had several thousand civilian deaths, mostly members of the merchant marine plus some 400,000 military deaths. The United Kingdom had more civilian deaths, over 50,000, with a slightly smaller number of military deaths. The French suffered many more civilian deaths because of all the fighting that took place in their country, and they lost many thousands of soldiers, too.

When we add other countries to the chart, it makes the American, British, and French losses seem small by comparison. For instance, since India was under British control at the time, many Indians fought with the British troops. A huge number of Indian civilians, approximately 2 million, died primarily because of famine and disease brought on by the war. Over 3 million Japanese died during the war, about 2 million soldiers and 1 million civilians. Well over 5 million Poles died during the war, about half of them Jews. About 2 million German civilians, including Jews, died during the war, plus some 5 million soldiers.

I only selected a few countries to highlight. Millions more died in other countries, including some 15 million in China. But dwarfing all of the others shown on this chart is the USSR. People have attempted to make various estimates of the number of Soviets who died, but it was approximately 15 million civilians and 10 million soldiers.

It is one of the strange paradoxes of history that the United States was on the same side of the war as Josef Stalin. As the head of the Soviet Union, he was responsible for a great deal of death and suffering, perhaps as much as Adolf Hitler. Regardless of who was responsible, Russians, Ukrainians, and the many other ethnic groups under the control of the Soviet Union suffered enormously before, during, and after World War II.

World War II happened because a few political and military leaders decided that their personal interests were more important than the lives of millions of fellow human beings (James 4:1-2). The seeds that grow into world war start in individual human hearts that harbor prejudice and selfish ambition.

My grandfather Wesley Notgrass, served in the medical corps of the U.S. 1st Army Headquarters Company. He was stationed in New York and Bristol, England, before crossing Europe from France to Germany after D-Day. He saw the worst that people can do to each other, but he did not give up hope.

In a sermon my grandfather preached in 1977, he made this insightful observation:

The New Testament declares that [God] has made provision for a new humanity: a holy nation, a royal priesthood, a peculiar people. This is from 1 Peter. [1 Peter 2:9] Not identifiable geographically, but identifiable spiritually. Now listen to me carefully: in reality there is no ‘holy land’—neither in Israel nor in America. There is no divine nation, except the one that God is trying to make out of every nation under the sun. There is no God-endorsed economic system. America is NOT the kingdom of God. God’s people rise above self, above nationalism, above economic status—and take one another by the hand, and say, ‘I am sincerely concerned about you and I want to be your friend.’ And in this way, thousands and thousands may stand before God with every false barrier broken down.

I am thankful for my grandfather's efforts to bring physical freedom to people in Europe. But I also recognize that many Americans throughout history have been guilty of the same things we fought the Nazis for--treating certain people as less valuable and grabbing what they wanted (land, resources, etc.) without regard for the impact on others.

It's easy for us to have sympathy for people we feel are like us. But those of who have believed in the mercy of Jesus Christ should go above and beyond this to have sympathy and compassion and love for everyone, even those who are very different from us. As human beings, we all have equal value. Each of us is made in God's image. None of us is better than others because of when we were born, where we were born, who our parents were, or any other factor.

Granddaddy Wes concluded his sermon with these words:

I know that there is much sickness in this nation of ours—spiritual malady. But here, I believe, is the answer. A strong determination to return to God. To re-establish and to undergird the principles that have given us whatever strength there is. Where do we start? It all has to begin with you and me.

I believe that we should study history to understand why things happened, to recognize similar trends in the present, and to learn from people in the past how we can live better lives. I am excited about a new WWII field trip guide that I created for my company. I admit that tanks, planes, and ships are cool, even though it's sad to think about all the resources spent developing and building new ways to kill people and blow things up. But this guide is about more than that. It highlights the good, the bad, and the ugly about American involvement in WWII. And I hope that by remembering how bad war is, we can also remember to seek peace and pursue it.