The Last War That Had to Be Fought
By Hammad Junejo
The Second World War stands as one of the worst conflicts in human history, one that devoured millions of lives and changed the future of every person who survived it. The war was, as Sergeant Harry Preston, a Gunner in the Canadian 3rd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment calls it, “the last war that had to be fought.”
“The Last War That Had to Be Fought documents Preston’s war experiences and shows the bravery of the many men like Preston who answered the call to serve. The reader will see that Preston was not a medal winner or a Hollywood-styled war hero. He was an average soldier who answered Canada’s call to end Nazi tyranny, and he was lucky enough to return home.”
—Gregory Loughton, Curator Emeritus at the Royal Canadian Military Institute
Softcover / 60 pages
Category: Military History
“Our potential for good and for bad”: A Q&A with Hammad Junejo
In 2019, Expressed Books published The Last War That Had to Be Fought, a biography of Sergeant Harry Preston, a Gunner in the Canadian 3rd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment during the Second World War. Preston, who died in June 2019 at the age of 97, called WWII “the last war that had to be fought,” since it was the last war when evil was so clearly manifested and the need to defeat it so obvious.
In this Q&A, the author of The Last War, Hammad Junejo, talks about why D-Day still matters to us, and why the sacrifices of hundreds of thousands of “average” soldiers—rather than the heroics of a few—deserve more attention and acclaim.
Q: The 75th anniversary of D-Day passed earlier this summer. Do you think we still understand the gravity of what happened on that day, and what might have happened if the Allies failed on D-Day?
Junejo: D-Day was one of the most significant days in human history. The Nazi threat had united almost the entire remaining world, and the significance of the Normandy Landings cannot be understated. Statistically, it was the biggest amphibious assault in our history. Even in terms of the preparation, planning, logistics and execution, it was gargantuan. However, it is easy to gloss over its significance in our day and age simply because most of us take it for granted. It was just an event that occurred so many years ago. Not many outside the field of history understand just how easily it could have gone wrong. Just to name a few quick examples: If Eisenhower had delayed the D-Day landings past the 6 of June, or if Hitler had allowed his generals to deploy the reserve panzer divisions to Normandy once the Allies had made landfall, or if the Allies’ deception had not fooled the Germans into thinking the attack was coming at the Pas-de-Calais. Any of these factors could have easily swayed the course of the battle in the German’s favour. It goes without saying that this cannot be known for certain. In the field of history, we’re taught to steer clear of counterfactual history or the “what ifs.” I think it’s very easy to feel disconnected from a part of history that is distant from us. I think it takes people who were there for us to really understand the gravity of what happened that day, which I feel many people nowadays need. They need to be reminded of what happened that day—the sacrifices and the heroics of men who gave their lives for our world to be rid of Nazism.
Q: Your book, The Last War That Had to Be Fought, recounts the war experiences of a single Canadian soldier, Harry Preston, who died in June of this year. Preston was one of many thousands of “average” soldiers—men who did not earn medals or become stars of Hollywood films, and who now are slowly dying out from age and natural causes. Why should the lives of ordinary soldiers matter to us?
J: Firstly, for the most obvious reason, they make up the bulk of the men who fought in the war, and in general, in any war. A Canadian division with auxiliary troops numbered approximately 20,000 men. Of those, how many might be medal winners or “heroes” in the Hollywood sense? There were definitely countless acts of bravery and sacrifice in the war but most of the men who went to war were average men like us. Their reward was not a medal. It was simply a chance to return home to their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, wives and children.
Another reason for why their lives matter is because they allow us, in our modern world, to connect. They are like us. They felt scared, happy, anxious, sad, and angry. Unlike Hollywood movies, in which the characters are usually larger than life and brave beyond measure, these men were real. They were scared when bullets whizzed over their head, they were scared when they had to face a determined and well-trained foe, they were scared when they were advancing on the enemy—but they did it all the same. When we read their experiences, we begin to break that disconnect most of us feel with the distant past. It allows us to relate to them and understand their motives, reasoning, and emotions. It allows us to connect on a human level with these men. This, in turn, allows us a deeper understanding of the war and history in general. It helps us bridge this divide between our world and theirs.
Finally, their lives matter because they sacrificed their happiness, their friends, even themselves to ensure that the last war that had to be fought was fought—and won. They set up the world we are living in. Their actions allow us to live in a world that, while it has its problems, at least has one less problem.
Q: You've studied the Second World War as a student of history. What insight or lesson into that war did writing this book about an ordinary soldier teach you that your studies did not?
J: In essence, this book and the research that I did gave me a different role. Besides being a historian, a researcher, and a writer—roles which I’m used to occupying—this project put me in the shoes of an investigative journalist. This work, unlike what I’ve done before was “boots on the ground” sort of work. It was getting into the middle of things, chasing leads down, interviewing the right people, and finding out what happened from various angles and perspectives.
This book—and my interviews with Mr. Preston—taught me a great deal about what war is really like (short of actually being in one). It was no longer about studying troop movements and campaign details, but instead asking someone who was really there. It was no longer about studying statistics and numbers, but instead understanding that each statistic represented a man with a family and with emotions, hopes, and aspirations. History became very real in that moment for me.
Nowadays, most of us are blessed that we don’t have to worry about a war. We live in relative peace and comfort, and when we study about such wars, we view them through our eyes. The pictures and videos are foreign. The closest we can get to almost being there is by speaking to someone who actually was there.
Writing this book opened my eyes to the “ordinary” men and women who fought in these wars. It reminds me that the horrors of the Holocaust were not orchestrated by some shapeless monsters or demons, but by very real humans, and that the men who stormed the beaches of Normandy were not mythical heroes like Achilles, but they were very real humans who felt all the emotions we feel, and so, these men, like you and me, highlight humanity’s worst and finest moments, our potential for good and for bad.
[The transcript has been edited for brevity.]