FOR much of humanity, World War II is a vague memory. Ration books. The chilling drone of bombers. Radio bulletins from Europe and Africa and Asia. A tattered Nazi flag, a rusting Japanese sword, mementos now in a dusty trunk. Fifty years later, it's a history-book war for most of the world, born since then. There are veterans and survivors to tell the stories of heroism and horror. Men and women whose lives were changed forever after September 1, 1939 - an artificial date for the historic start of a conflict that in retrospect seems nearly inevitable after about 1919 or maybe even 1870. But even artificial dates are useful if they drive home the lessons of history.
How clear that awful time seems now, how many lost opportunities in retrospect to prevent the madness that cost so much. And the obvious lessons: An end to the idea of isolationism as viable foreign policy. Proof that there can be no compromise with terrorism, no appeasing of terrorists. (Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, after all, were world class terrorists.)
How the world has changed since then, how much inevitable change was accelerated by the cataclysm of world war.
Eastern Europe - where it all began - is shifting in ways that point up the problems with the map drawn during and after the war. Poland, Hungary, the Baltic republics, and others within the Soviet sphere are feeling the urge of nationalism, the pull of political and economic freedom. Thousands of East Germans have had enough of Soviet-style domination and are headed west.
Western Europeans - who fought together on the battlefield but spent too much energy squabbling since then - are drawing together politically and economically. (1992 will be as much of a turning point as 1942 was in the Pacific war.) Whether Japan's symbolic sun is rising or setting has long since been settled in banks, boardrooms, and assembly lines around the globe. The Mideast still feels the impact of colonialism and murderous religious bigotry that were very much part of - but not settled by - the conflict.
Not just nations and national alliances, but families too were changed. Racial and sexual equality have not been reached. But women and minority men proved in factories and foxholes that potential and accomplishment know no bounds of race or gender.
The nature of war moves toward the ends of the conflict spectrum: nuclear missiles and ``star wars,'' petrol bombs and small arms. Tanks and artillery are being negotiated away by superpowers (another post-war word).
It's a time to mark these changes, a time to dust off the mementos and retell the stories. But mainly it's a time to remember the lessons and the opportunities.