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D-Day in 2024: Is it even possible?

D-Day in 2024: Is it even possible?
Annie Gugliotta

A few days before US President Joe Biden arrived on the beaches of Normandy to commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day, a smaller war erupted on the GZERO office Slack channels.

“It’s impossible to imagine us launching something like D-Day again,” I wrote in our group channel. “Skepticism of foreign intervention is too high. The Forever Wars are too recent. Our society is too polarized. No way our leaders could get enough people to support it.”

But my colleague Matt Kendrick, one of the most thoughtful and historically minded guys you’ll ever meet – the guy can reliably write 1,000 (legit fascinating) words about how some obscure naval battle actually shaped our world more than the steam engine and the internet combined – pushed back on me.

“I think this is counterfactual and navel-gazey,” he wrote. “In 1939, the US was politically and militarily incapable of pulling off a D-Day. Five years later they did it. In 2024, meanwhile, we have the most powerful military in world history, and we rarely base national security decisions on public opinion.”

Those are fighting words! You leave my navel out of this!

But since we had a good little Slack argument about it, I wanted to reproduce a bit of it here as my column for this week, since I think we touched on a lot of important issues about US military power, social polarization, and foreign policy priorities.

So, first, just to set the parameters: There are, of course, no direct parallels today with the situation in France in 1944. With the exception of Eurovision season, there’s no interstate conflict in Western Europe anymore.

To imagine a comparable situation entailing the massive mobilization of American troops to defend a reasonably close partner that another great power rival has invaded, the most likely candidate is a Chinese invasion of, say, Taiwan or the Philippines. Russia testing NATO resolve with a shot at Poland could also probably fit the bill, though there was no NATO in 1944, so let’s be deliberately vague with our navel-gazing counterfactuals.

I opened with the observation that America is now a deeply polarized country that has a hard time agreeing on anything. That includes fairly frivolous things like whether to take pickleball seriously (jury out), or did Kendrick crush Drake (yes, hands down), but also basic things like “Who won the last election?” or “Is the justice system rigged?”

But one thing we do seem to agree on is that we don’t want more foreign wars these days. A national security theme of (at least) the last four US presidents has been how the US remains the global policeman without deploying more global policemen.

Only a quarter of Americans want a more active role in global affairs, and 40% want a less active one, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. We’ve spent years investing in military technologies meant to minimize the need for human combatants – in part to insulate foreign policy from public opinion opposed to foreign wars.

Does this feel like a society that would put hundreds of thousands of lives on the line tens of thousands of miles away? I can’t see it.

Matt countered: “This is a good summary of US opinion in 1939 as well!”

He’s right about this. As late as January 1940, nearly 90% of Americans opposed intervention in Europe to defeat Nazi Germany. And barely a year and a half later, the numbers were flipped – after the UK heroically resisted the Germans (on the beaches! the landing grounds! the streets! the fields! the valleys!), the US imposed a draft, and the government got to work drumming up support for entering the war – and 70% of Americans favored fighting in Europe. Things change. Societies can be convinced to act.

Sure I shot back, but the polarization and fragmentation of the media and information space today makes it far harder to develop the critical mass of public consensus that you’d need (or at least want) to support a massive foreign invasion today. The days when a well-struck Fireside Chat could set a nationwide agenda are long gone.

Matt responded: “I think you’re overlooking the ways that technological change actually serves government propaganda equally effectively. Think about the immense effort that went into building public support for Word War II, and then think about how much more effectively similar efforts would be when everyone carries a personal tracking and advertising device in their pockets at all times.”

Hmm ...I thought: “Given the reach of tech companies, I suppose it would take only modest collusion between Washington and Silicon Valley to drive things in a very Orwellian direction. But I don’t know: Washington did its best to shape the messaging around the pandemic, and we still got lots of countervailing views ranging from reasonable to insane, all of which were highly politicized. Why would a question of war be any different? Is an Iraq-war style drum-up really conceivable in 2024?”

Matt continued with: “I firmly believe that if Americans were watching, for example, Chinese missiles rain down on, say, Seoul, Tokyo, and Taipei for six months while reading stories about Chinese atrocities and being fed nationalist propaganda, we'd see overwhelming support for a draft and war against China.”

Hold up. I point out that we have been watching Russia rain missiles down on Ukraine and commit all manner of atrocities for two years now, and that America is pretty divided even on arm’s-length support for Kyiv and there is almost no appetite at all for sending US troops into Ukraine. This tells you everything you need to know.

But Matt wasn’t buying it. He countered with: “55% of Americans say they support Ukraine in retaking its territory, and about 40% (and rising) say we aren’t doing enough. Opposition to that is an extremist position that has more to do with House GOP dynamics than broad public opinion.”

Ultimately, our disagreement goes to something deeper. Launching a major war, in a democracy at least, requires social consensus. Matt sees that consensus as being within reach if the circumstances arise. I see a society so fragmented and polarized that this is much harder – for better or worse – to achieve in 2024 than in 1939 or 1944.

But are we even asking the right question? Maybe not! After getting wind of the great Kendrick-Kliment debate, our colleague Ari Winkleman, who runs the GZERO design team, quietly dropped this little gem into the chat:

What do you think? Could US society in 2024 be convinced to support a massive foreign war again? What would it take?

Write to us here. Include your name and location and we might run your thoughts in an upcoming edition of the GZERO Daily.


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