One reason is certainly the vastness of the whole conflict. The ‘Vietnam’ or ‘Korean’ Wars can largely be said to confine within the geographical limits of those two countries. Obviously they involved the US, China, Soviet Union and extended geographically into other areas, but you get the point. WORLD WAR, however, carries a much more epic connotation.
So if we lay out a few things, I think it’ll make it clearer. Let’s discuss scope, including beligerents, the origins, and the ramifications or long-term results.
1.Scope: The enormity of the war defies logic, and it really should be classified as ‘The World Wars of 1937-1954’ if you ask me. When an American student is asked to assess WWII, s/he will often begin with Pearl Harbor, some 8 years after the start of the Asian Theatre. The Wars transformed the ‘dynamic of destruction’ begun in WWI into a truly catastrophic and epoch-defining conflict in which Race, Ethnicity and Combatant-Status were given entirely new meanings. The Wars involved nearly everyone on the globe (not literally) fighting nearly everyone else, and in seemingly any single theatre of fighting, the complexities are mind-boggling enough to almost defy explanation. In looking at the scope of destruction in Warsaw in 1939, it’s difficult to imagine that War could be more brutal, until you look at the ‘Rape of Nanking’ or the fratricidal and very confusing wars fought in the Balkans. The scope of the war also involved ideologies on a scale not really seen before. The clash of western liberalism, national socialism and marxist inspired communism really dealt a sense of seriousness and existentialism to the conflicts. By that I mean there was a real sense of an apocalyptic showdown: each saw the ‘other’ as not only the enemy, but barbaric and even ‘evil.’ Barbarism is present in all wars, but again, the scope, the severity of the death and destruction of both individuals and of groups of people, is staggering.
2.Origins: What caused the War(s)? The answer to many is even more disturbing than the actual war, because it appears to many that the origins of this brutal war lie in a decision by the victors of WWI to impose a settlement upon Germany that would end all wars. What does this really mean? It means that even without Hitler, the suffering of the Germans prior to the outbreak of hostilities was incredible. The moral and physical landscape of Europe had been ravaged by WWI to such an extent that it would seem no war could ever take place again. The Great Terror and Holodomor in the USSR had already hit their peaks by 1939 (the traditional start of WWII) and that was only the beginning. The origins of the war lie in nefariousness, in cunning, in duplicity, in deceit and in imperialism. Which means it basically started like any other war – except this time ideologies were the driving force, rather than economics. Hitler didn’t invade Poland to secure minerals, to acquire natural forests or to take advantage of their industry. He essentially invaded to secure ‘living room’ for his Germanic peoples, his ‘Volk’. In his moral landscape there was no room for the Jew, the Slav or the undesirables. At the same time, Stalin invaded to secure the territory of the Ukraine and the Baltic countries in a bid to continue his centralization of Soviet power into a country denied to him in 1921. Russia had all the natural resources in the world with the open tundra of Siberia, so he was not after resources either, his was an ideological mission to spread Communism.
3.Ramifications: We are in the year 2014 and the United States is the lone super-power. Yet in 1938 the US was far from a global super-power in today’s sense of the word. The War(s) dramatically impacted the United States’ meteoric rise to the top of the world. The US was spared the civilian bloodshed and infrastructural damage of the European/Asian wars, yet reaped the physical and moral benefits by defeating Nazism, culturally colonizing Western Europe, and catapulting her economy into superstardom through the tremendous industrial capabilities gained through the War’s result. The USSR and USA came out of the conflicts much better off, and to cut this answer a little short – the Korean War and Vietnam Wars don’t exist without the USA’s triumph in WWII. Neither does our current predicament in Afghanistan. The Soviets continued expanding and went into Afghanistan in 1980, a place even the Tsars at the height of their empire couldn’t do very well. The US’s interventions in Asia and Latin America and the Soviet Union’s interventions and expansions into Central Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus were direct results of the situation in Europe after 1945.
In a nutshell, that is why people are still fascinated with the Wars of 1937-1954. That and the well-publicized and relatively unprecedented genocide of Europe’s jewry which spawned our idea of, and our word for, Genocide.