THE SACRIFICES THAT GOT US WHERE WE ARE TODAY

THE SACRIFICES THAT GOT US WHERE WE ARE TODAY

The movie ''U-571'' is a hit at the box office. As of Monday it had taken in $57 million in sales and has been among the top grossing films since its release in April.

Having seen the film twice, I can attribute part of its success to the fact that it's simply a good flick, with enough conflict, tension, action and redemption that will keep you engaged for two hours.But I suspect there are reasons other than pure entertainment why this film strikes a chord with the public.

''U-571'' tells the story of an American submarine crew early in World War II, which is ordered into the North Atlantic on a secret mission to capture a German Enigma encryption device from a damaged Nazi U-boat, U-571.

The plot is fictitious. An American submarine was never sent on such a mission. Yet there is contextual accuracy to the film.

The Allies were losing hundreds of merchant ships in the early years of the war due to their inability to decode Nazi radio transmissions sent via the Enigma system.

Winning the war in Europe depended on getting our merchant ships across the Atlantic to Britain and Russia. A British ship captured the disabled U-110 and its Enigma device after the German sailors failed to scuttle their U-boat as ordered. Two other instances of allied naval successes in capturing Enigma materials are identified at the end of the film as a tribute to those who carried out the operations.

But there is also a larger truth to this film.

It emerges out of the conscious efforts of filmmaker Jonathan Mostow and his cast to appreciate, as best they could, the reality of the North Atlantic at the height of World War II.

The ingredient that helped bring to life the bitter war for the Atlantic was respect for those who were actually there. It is the kind of respect that can only come from seeing more than half a century of good result from the sacrifices of those who fought that war.

And it is a sign that we as a country are finally appreciating that our lives are materially better as a result of those sacrifices.

Matthew McConaughey, the actor who played the executive officer of the American sub, admitted to Larry King that he handed out Tom Brokaw's unexpected best-seller, ''The Greatest Generation,'' to everyone in the cast.

The book tells the stories of ordinary people from the generation that fought in the Second World War. Brokaw got the idea a decade ago while at Normandy covering the 45th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. His book became such a sensation that it spawned a sequel, ''The Greatest Generation Speaks,'' now also a best-seller.

The point to all of this is simple: At the dawn of the 21st century, long after the guns stopped firing and the soldiers, sailors and merchant seamen stopped dying, Americans are awakening to how profoundly the quality of their lives is owed to what was accomplished during and just after World War II.

We can appreciate that the key achievement of these men and women - now in their 70s and 80s and passing away by the thousands each month - wasn't simply defeating the Axis powers. The bigger story was that, in doing so, they laid the foundations for the political and economic order that underpins the prosperity that much of the world enjoys today, and that the rest is striving for.

The World Trade Organization, the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and more are rooted in the Allies' victory in World War II. So is the West's commitment to human rights and democracy - the values that led NATO, also a legacy of the war, into Kosovo last year.

It was a sharp and welcome contrast with what happened at the end of the first great war of the century, World War I, when shortsighted, vindictive European politics, American isolationism and a vicious cycle of global protectionism guaranteed another and bigger conflagration.

There are still dangerous hot spots today - Africa, South Asia, and the Taiwan Straits, to name a few - but democracy and free enterprise are racing like brushfire around the world. No wonder the remaining communists are frightened to death.

As ''U-571'' tries to illustrate, the wartime victory that planted the seed for all this was above all other things a human victory. It was the culmination of countless human experiences, often terrifying, tragic and emotionally scarring, that are all but inconceivable to the vast majority of us Americans who never went to war.

In its best moments, ''U-571'' tries to give a glimpse of what it would be like to be in a submarine being depth-charged, knowing your life may come to an ugly end. The submarines' interiors were designed to create an authentic setting for the drama to play out.

The film tries to show what it means to be the captain of a ship in wartime, having to make life-and-death decisions based on imperfect information.

It's especially gratifying to see a movie like ''U-571'' succeed because many of the World War II generation are still alive to be accorded the respect they deserve. And with the Internet seemingly set to remake the world yet again, it's important for younger generations to understand the battles that were fought to get us where we are today.