Private Ryan, Amnesiac
10.07.2001 | POLITICS
About a week after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, I turned on the TV to see MSNBC's Chris Mathews grilling a guest on his show, Hardball. The guest was suggesting that President Bush's pledge to "rid the world of evil" might have been a touch unrealistic. He went on to say that geopolitics might be a little more complicated than Bush had allowed, in that the world might have options beyond "with us, or with the terrorists." None of this sat well with Mathews, whose show--as anyone who has ever watched it can attest--is not conducive to views to that fly in the face of conventional wisdom. He sputtered objections throughout his guest's monologue, then cut him off entirely and handed the floor to his second guest, former Navy Secretary John Lehman. Lehman made quick work of the first guest's ideas. "First of all," he said, "this is a war of good versus evil, just like World War II. Let's keep it that simple."
Absolutism is dangerous because it is most attractive when it is least appropriate. Much as Lehman might wish otherwise, the situation facing the United States is anything but simple. We are confronted now by a war without geography, more similar to the morass that is our campaign against drugs than it is to any conventional military action. The closest comparison, in fact, is our war against cancer. Cancer, like terrorism, lurks in cells before unleashing its evil, and in fighting it we must be careful not to bombard the malevolent cells too heavily, lest we destroy ourselves along with the agents that infect us. Bombs and cruise missiles can lay waste to buildings even as they give birth to new generations of terrorists; a ground invasion of Afghanistan may stomp out the Taliban, but risks plunging us into the very war for which Osama bin Laden so passionately longs.
To its credit, the Bush Administration, after its initial bout of saber rattling, has seemed to take heed of the treacherous path before it. The bravado has been muted, and most indications now are that a military response will be forceful but carefully measured. Civil libertarians remain rightly suspicious of the requested new law enforcement powers, but on anyone worried about a full-scale war should be heartened to hear officials estimate the military's anticipated counter terrorism role as fairly small. We will need to see where the current campaign takes us, of course, but thus far the rhetoric has been reassuringly levelheaded.
Would that we could say the same for the media's gasbag talking heads. Thomas Friedman wants to hire the Russian mafia to kill Osama bin Laden. The Reverend Billy Graham said that weapons of mass destruction might be appropriate. Steve Dunleavy of the New York Post demanded that we take countries harboring terrorists and "bomb them into basketball courts." The reliably idiotic Leonard Pitts, Jr. wrote a column for the Miami Herald that sounded like a warmed-over Clint Eastwood script. And on September 17, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly announced that "the people of any country are ultimately responsible for any government they have. The Germans were responsible for Hitler. The Afghans are responsible for the Taliban." Never mind that punishing civilians for the actions of their government is the same twisted logic employed by the terrorists themselves, and never mind that the Germans elected Hitler, while the Taliban seized power militarily (with no small assistance from the United States). In O'Reilly's opinion, Afghanistan's civilians, already living in the epicenter of human misery, owe it to America to overthrow their government. And if they don't, they should be deprived food. "If these people don't rise up," he said, "they starve. Period."
The case for avoiding depth was made best, however, by Dan Rather, who was asked by David Letterman to comment on the sources of Islamic rage. The dean of American journalism dismissed the idea summarily. "Hate is hate," he said, and then followed that up by saying, "George Bush is the president. He makes the decisions...Wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where. And he'll make the call." There was no need, in other words, for journalism, for skepticism, or even for thought. The situation was that simple. Like World War II.
But is it like World War II? And if it is, does that make it right? For a conflict that ended 56 years ago, World War II remains a remarkably busy war. In times when it seems appropriate, politicians and pundits summon it as a metaphor, largely because it carries an impermeable aura of justice that lends credence to any cause with which it is compared. What we conjure, however, bears little resemblance to what we did; the war we use to rationalize our contemporary aims is one that has been elegantly refurbished, its knots of contradiction and brutality neatly sanded away. We call on the World War II of our collective memory, a national myth that in the last few years has received fresh coats of varnish from Saving Private Ryan, Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation books, and the works of Stephen E. Ambrose. It is the myth of the Good War, where one side laid exclusive claim to morality, and the other was an unrepentant Death Star, motivated by nothing save evil for evil's sake. The myth is a time-traveler: it connects us to an era before Vietnam and free-fire, Oswald and Ollie North. It is fresh-faced boys instead of jowl-cheeked crooks, and its appeal is as understandable as it is impossible: it offers us the idea that if things were so simple once, they can be again.
Anyone not immersed in the American view of history would probably find World War II an odd choice for a morality play, since it ends when the protagonist drops two atomic bombs. Regardless of whether one considers the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki justified, few events in history are more freighted with moral complexity than the fact that on August 6, 1945, the United States incinerated 70,000 people in the blink of an eye. The debate over the bomb has been waged now by three generations of historians and philosophers, and it is a testament to its complexity that the argument easily transcends the usual left/right lines. It was New Dealers, after all, who bombed Japan, and Henry L. Stimson's famous essay defending the attacks was published in the trenchantly liberal Harper's. For years, Stimson's argument--and it is a persuasive one--has been the dominant brief on the atomic bomb, the one taught to schoolchildren and recited by news outlets. Hiroshima, in Stimson's words, was "our least abhorrent" course of action, one that prevented the millions of deaths the millions of deaths likely to accompany any invasion of Japan. Putting soldiers on the Japanese mainland, he told President Truman in July of 1945, "will probably cast the die of last-ditch resistance...the Japanese are highly patriotic and susceptible to calls for fanatical resistance."
There is no evidence to suggest Stimson was wrong in this assessment. There was evidence, however, that Japan had little stomach for further fighting, and that bomb or no, an invasion might not be necessary. Intercepted cable traffic showed the Japanese working feverishly to arrive at surrender terms, and stalled not by any warrior credo but instead by the American insistence that any surrender be unconditional. Japan wanted its Emperor, who was considered a Holy Figure by his citizenry, to retain a symbolic role in any postwar restructuring. That was its sole condition, but it was on which the U.S. was unbending. "Unconditional surrender," Japanese Foreign Minister Shigemori Togo wired his ambassador in Moscow on July 13, "is our only obstacle to peace." Bafflingly, after the bombs were dropped, America acceded to this request, and left the Emperor powerless, but still in his throne. This gave credence to the idea that the bombs had been unnecessary, and the Pentagons' Strategic Bombing Survey, in a study conducted after the war, lent additional strength to that conclusion:
It is the survey's opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all possibility prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.
A smoking gun? Of course not. Damning though it may seem, anyone reading that passage should remind themselves that in 1945 President Truman was handed a decision no rational human would ever want. Given the option of ending a long and bloody war, at the Faustian cost of using an undeniably evil weapon, Truman did what he felt was best. The argument over the atomic bomb can and should continue, but the idea that any one piece of evidence will settle it is folly. Truman's decision is not one not be criticized carelessly. For the same reasons, however, it should also not be mindlessly endorsed. Our desire to make World War II a moral crusade, and to fit the atomic bomb into its context, has greatly diminished the awful method we chose to end the conflict. The shadow of the bomb will always be with America, and our refusal to confront it--or, still worse, our insistence that it was an act of benevolence--often comes across as callous and insulting to other nations. Consider, for instance, Peter Jennings' final World News Tonight broadcast from Hiroshima on August 5, 1986:
The ceremonies here to mark the fortieth anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb are almost over. Japan's Prime Minister Nakasone has just spoken to the crowd, telling them again, of course, to remember to keep the image of what war can cost in their minds. And not far from where we stand, a peace bell, which you may hear, which people come from all over the world to ring.
Those people who died at Hiroshima and later at Nagasaki were killed by the atomic bomb, but they really died because of an evil Japanese ideology. There was scarcely a crime the Japanese had not committed in their drive to conquer the world. Today's Japanese are uncompromising in their commitment to peace. They're forever coming up and thanking Americans for setting Japan on the road to democracy. So for the Japanese, Hiroshima was a terrible lesson, but they appear to have learned it well.
The only thing scarier than the fact that Jennings said this is the fact that a large number of Americans probably accepted it as a reasonable recounting of history, and an accurate representation of how the United States is viewed in the world. Here is America, dropping the atomic bomb for its democracy-enhancing side effects, and here is Japan, effusive with gratitude under its nuclear dawn. Jennings' bizarre fable maintains the illusion of a moral nation that is always disliked without reason, and hated by its enemies only because its enemies hate freedom. The arrogance necessary to make such statements, and the incomprehensible complacency required to believe them, contribute to much of the world's belief that America is often a high-handed hypocrite. "To study foreign affairs without putting ourselves in others' shoes," Paul Gagnon has noted, "is to deal in illusion, and to prepare students for a lifelong misunderstanding of our place in the world." John Powers, writing in the September 21 LA Weekly, put it more succinctly. "They hate us," he wrote, "because we don't even know why they hate us."
For the sake of discussion, though, let's remove the atomic bomb from the equation. Let's call it a problem unto itself, rather than an intrinsic part of World War II. Even now, we stumble in our efforts to construct a moral war. Certainly we can argue that the conflict sprang from a just cause--the United States was grievously wronged at Pearl Harbor--but a moral war requires something more than revenge. We are hard-pressed to define what it was America was fighting for. Both Germany and Japan were advancing racist ideologies, but the United States was definitely not fighting to repudiate racism; America was at that time an overtly racist country. Most Black Americans were not permitted to fight in World War II, and those few allowed to enlist had no interaction with their Caucasian comrades, since the armed forces were segregated. Even the American blood supply was segregated, lest white blood be wasted on a bleeding black, or black blood be allowed to pollute a wounded white. And while many Americans probably disapproved of Hitler's racial programs, the country drew little motivation from the idea of defeating them. The campaign against Germany was viewed as a secondary objective, a necessary adjunct to the primary goal, which was a war of retaliation against Japan. The Army's "Why We Fight" propaganda films discussed Germany very little, and the Holocaust not at all. The propaganda was focused on Japan (no one, as historian Paul Fussell has pointed out, shouted "Remember Poland!") and much of it was racist. Films and posters consistently dehumanized the Japanese, and the American media--much like its German counterpart--happily cooperated with its government's bigotry. "The ordinary unreasoning Jap is ignorant," Time wrote in 1945. "Perhaps he is human...nothing indicates it." And this is to say nothing of the internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans, a crime whose legacy still stains Franklin Roosevelt and the Supreme Court.
Was World War II a battle then to defend human rights? When the Luftwaffe bombed civilian areas of Holland and Denmark, President Roosevelt called it "inhuman barbarism that has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity." But how do we reconcile this with the Army Air Corps' chilling declaration that "there are no civilians in Japan?" At the outset of World War II, America pursued a program of precision bombing, but in the war's waning days lost patience and adopted precisely the opposite approach. General Curtis Lemay, commandant of the Army Air Corps, announced the change in tactics. "I'll you what war is about," he said. "You've got to kill people, and when you've killed enough they stop fighting."
That remark was followed by the firebombing of 66 Japanese cities, in a campaign Lemay crafted specifically to yield maximum death tolls. The Oxford History of the United States describes him as obsessive in the lengths he went to sow destruction: his engineers experimented with different amounts of explosives and incendiaries, and his pilots flew practice attacks, so that when they hit Japan they were able to create "concentric rings of fire...thermal hurricanes that killed by suffocation as well as by heat, as the flames sucked all available oxygen out of the surrounding atmosphere...The victims died from fire, asphyxiation, and falling buildings. Some boiled to death in superheated ponds and canals where they had sought refuge from the flames."
The firebombing of Japan killed upwards of 900,000 people. As with the atomic bomb, people have since differed as to its justification. Brigadier General Bonner Fellers called it "the most ruthless and barbaric killing of noncombatants in all history." Historian Benjamin Schwartz considers it a sadly reasonable course of action, one that precluded a land invasion. Unlike the atomic bomb, though, few Americans ever learned about the incendiary campaign, and of those of us who did, many allowed it to slide off into history's peripheries. We viewed it, as we viewed all such things prior to September 11, with a certain distance. We understood on some level that it was horrible, but the barriers of geography and time prevented us from appreciating its true enormity.
The myth is a time-traveler, but it the journey doesn't leave it unchanged. Time has done strange things to World War II. That it has glossed over the war's more brutal aspects is not terribly surprising; that it has inverted our wartime priorities is something else altogether. In the 1930s the entire world was slow to realize the danger posed by Hitler, and America (with the exception of its President) was slower than most. Even in 1941, as we locked up Japanese-Americans, so too did we slam the door of immigration to Jews fleeing Europe. Popular culture, it seems, wants to compensate for this, and has done so by pushing Japan to the side and putting Germany center-stage. A nation that in 1942 wanted mainly to defeat Japan has been transformed--in movies, books, and television events--into a country with an almost feverish desire to destroy Hitler. Schoolchildren learn about the evils of the Third Reich, and then about America's crucial role in vanquishing it. Films about the European campaign, most notably Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, haul in box office receipts and audience acclaim. Films about the Pacific, meanwhile, such as Pearl Harbor, The Thin Red Line, and Tora! Tora! Tora! pass quickly from our memory.
Part of this, of course, has nothing to do with American perception, and everything to do with lousy filmmaking. Pearl Harbor was just a stupid movie, and The Thin Red Line, while ambitious and powerful, was also overlong and prone to wandering. (Tora! Tora! Tora!, the most lamentable casualty, may have just been too honest). But beyond that, the German campaign has a certain cinematic appeal. If Hitler was the embodiment of evil, then we who battled him can be seen as the embodiment of good. This is the suggestion that hovers over Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and the wildly popular World War II histories of Stephen E. Ambrose.
Ambrose served as a technical consultant for Private Ryan and authored the book on which Band of Brothers is based. He has written four additional books on World War II (his fifth is forthcoming), and the motive behind all of them is laudable: he wants to honor America's veterans before they die. Ambrose is in no small part responsible for the movement to build a World War II memorial, and for this deserves praise. Unfortunately, in his desire to glorify these men he has often veered well wide of the facts, which has resulted in his millions of readers walking away with a horribly stilted view of the war. For this he deserves a literary keelhauling. World War II, to Ambrose's thinking, was not only a struggle between good and evil, but also one the United States almost single-handedly won. D-Day was the "climactic battle" and "turning point" of World War II, and it was America's democratic principles that guided the Allies to victory. American soldiers, he wrote in The Good Fight, "knew they were fighting for decency and democracy and they were proud of it and motivated by it." "Once again," the jacket of his book Citizen Soldiers reads, "Stephen E. Ambrose shows that free men fight better than slaves, that the sons of democracy proved to be better soldiers than the sons of Nazi Germany."
The only problem with such sentiments is that they aren't true. No one can doubt the heroism of the American GIs who fought it Europe, but on a macro level, the uncomfortable truth is that America didn't fight Germany very much at all. In 1941, while neither Britain nor the United States had troops on the European continent, the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. In response, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met at Casablanca, where Churchill and Stalin agreed to open a "second front" in France. For the next three years, and for reasons that to this day remain unclear, the Americans and the British failed to live up to this agreement. While the Red Army fought a scorched-earth campaign marked by starvation and brutality, the Americans and British first did nothing, then launched a strategically dubious campaign in Northern Africa, and finally invaded southern Italy.?
None of these moves came close to fulfilling the terms of Casablanca. The Germans were so unconcerned by the incursion into Italy that in the middle of it they moved 36 divisions, including six tank divisions, away from the American forces and into Russia. Enraged, Stalin wrote FDR and informed him that the Italian campaign "can by no means replace a second front in France...I consider it my duty to state that the early opening of a second front in France is the most important thing...I must give a most emphatic warning...of the grave danger with which further delay...is fraught."
At that point the Soviet Union was facing 4 million Axis soldiers--fully 80 percent of Germany's armed forces--across a front that spanned 2,000 miles. The fighting that took place here was the meat of the war, and its ferocity cannot be overstated. By its end 15 million Red Army soldiers would be dead, and 35 million Soviet civilians as well. (By way of comparison, 405,000 Americans died in Europe and the Pacific combined). But in that time the Soviet Union would also inflict 88 percent of all the German casualties suffered during World War II, and at Stalingrad, the war's most inhuman siege, the Red Army wiped out 50 German divisions. That was the war's true turning point; by the time the Allies crossed the channel on D-Day, to battle a small minority of the Axis troops, the back of the Third Reich had already been broken. Even as the Americans were making their noble stand on the French beaches, the Russians were chasing a far vaster army back across their own country and toward Berlin. The D-Day invasion, for all its daring, and for all the bravery displayed by its participants, did not turn the tide of World War II. It was the long-delayed fulfillment of a promise, and as such only an accelerant to a foregone conclusion.
(What's more, the American hesitation to join Russia in battle is now considered a major exacerbating factor in the Cold War. Roosevelt's willingness to let the USSR carry the burden of combat only increased Stalin's distrust of the United States. This distrust was largely ideological, but Americans forget that in the closing days of World War I President Wilson ordered two U.S. invasions of Siberia. Stalin had not forgotten this, and he would never forget the years in World War II when Russia fought and America didn't.)
Why the United States and Britain delayed the Second Front for so long remains a topic of dispute. Some historians speculate that Winston Churchill wanted Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia to bleed each other to death, as he considered both to be threats to world security. If that were in fact his plan, it would be hard to fault him. But it also discredits Ambrose's central thesis: the "sons of democracy" did not necessarily fight better than anyone else. It was the sons of Stalin who beat Hitler, and not because of ideology but out of the natural desire to defend themselves and their homes. The war against the Third Reich was therefore not a struggle between good and evil at all. It was a ghastly battle between two of the foulest governments to ever darken the planet, one made all the more tragic by the years of brutality that Soviet soldiers returned home to. The horrors endured by Russia at Hitler's hands do not, after all, mitigate the horrors endured by Russia at the hands of Stalin himself. Which brings us to a lesson America might well bear in mind today: an attack by evil men does not automatically confer goodness on its victim.
For us, though, World War II has a Hollywood ending. Everyone may die in Saving Private Ryan, but their deaths are validated when Private Ryan turns out to be a good man with a large family, and one who appreciates the sacrifices made by his brethren. No one familiar with Steven Spielberg should be terribly surprised by this; a remarkably gifted filmmaker, his movies invariably steer for the comforting shores of emotional rescue, and his audience is always allowed to walk away uplifted instead of thoughtful. Oskar Schindler gives a tearful speech to his liberated Jews, the slaves on the Amistad win their freedom, Private Ryan's wife assures him he is a good man. All of these endings are powerful--particularly the ending to Saving Private Ryan--but they deny the movies the complexity they have otherwise constructed. The rug gets pulled out from under whatever questions the movie raised, and the filmgoing public is let off the hook. No one leaving a Spielberg film has to think on the fact that slavery and its repercussions persisted long after the Amistad was gone, that Schindler made millions off his Jews and then vanished into the night (no tearful speech in real life), and that even if Private Ryan had not been a good man, even if he had been an irredeemable cretin, all his comrades would be just as dead.
To put it another way: Saving Private Ryan would have been the greatest anti-war movie ever made if Private Ryan had returned home and been killed two months later while robbing a liquor store. As it ends now, audiences leave feeling tremendous sorrow, but bearing no skepticism toward the institution of war itself. War in Spielberg's eye is awful but sane, a rational exercise, and one whose meaning will be made clear if everyone obeys orders, listens to Tom Hanks, and suppresses the urge to mutiny. It is difficult to meditate on the nature of sacrifice, or examine the corrupting power of war, if the beneficiary of the sacrifice is portrayed as indisputably just and utterly incorruptible.
Compare Private Ryan's conclusion with that of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. In the last segment of that film, the main character executes a teenaged Vietnamese girl who has in turn just killed six American soldiers. Then, against the backdrop of a burning city, he and his fellows march off into the night, singing the theme song to the Mickey Mouse club. As they march, the main character narrates over the chanting, and with a sort of eerie glee begins to talk about sex. "My thoughts drift back to erect nipple wet dreams about Mary Jane Rottencrotch and the Great Homecoming Fuck Fantasy," he says. "I am so happy that I am alive, in one piece and short. I'm in a world of shit, yes. But I am alive. And I am not afraid." With that, the movie ends.
It is a rare viewer who can emerge from Full Metal Jacket without wondering what its point was. The point, of course, is that there was no point, and this is the appropriate reaction to any careful study of war. If one looks over the long history of human conflict, the most consistent idea to found within is not courage, nor nobility, nor brotherhood, but waste. The pity of war is that in almost every instance it needn't happen. The immediate protest to this idea is that it is absurd: what was America to do after Pearl Harbor, what is it to do now? These points can't be argued, but the calendars can be adjusted. Wars begin long before their first shots are fired. World War II didn't begin with Pearl Harbor, and the "new war" against terrorists certainly didn't start in New York. The roots of World War II lie in the end of World War I, itself a needless conflagration, a war waged for little reason beyond surging pride and foolish vainglory. (It was also one whose flashpoint--the murder of Archduke Ferdinand--came in the form of an Islamic anarchist throwing a bomb.)
World War I ended with the Treaty of Versailles, a vindictive peace that not only saddled Germany with $33 billion in reparations, but also took away its industrial heartland. In this way it gave the Germans a debt impossible to repay, and consigned the country to a future without stability. From almost the moment it was signed the British economist John Maynard Keynes saw in Versailles the end of German democracy, the seeds of a new totalitarianism, and the birth of another war. In 1919's The Economic Consequences of the Peace, Keynes blasted the treaty as one that would perpetuate an endless cycle of governmental and economic decline. It "strikes at the heart of organization," he wrote, using the florid prose of the day, "and by the destruction of organization reduces yet further the wealth of the entire community." At the same time, Prince Fumimaro Konoye of Japan authored an article that questioned the treaty's refusal to embrace racial equality, and its unwillingness to entertain Japanese claims in China, even as it left intact America's "Open Door" policy. Japan, Konoye argued, would have "no resort but to destroy the status quo for the sake of self-preservation." Soon, of course, self-preservation gave way to a desire for racist expansion, and the road unwound toward Pearl Harbor.
If there is a lesson from World War II that has been consistently lost, it is that people without hope will turn to ideologies without compromise. The unyielding nature of fundamentalism--be it Islamic or Aryan--provides an anchor in the chaos that exists when government fails. An emphasis on purity, even hateful purity, becomes appealing when the alternative is corruption. The bloated Weimar Republic seemed a pale rival for the straitlaced approach of Hitler; the stringency of the Intifadah shames both the needless cruelty of the Israeli occupation and hopeless corruption of the Palestinian Authority. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan--all spawning grounds for terrorism--are also all failed states. All are saddled with incredible debt (Pakistan's is 58 percent of its GDP) and all are incapable of providing basic services to their citizens. The perpetual bedlam that marks such lawless and depoliticized societies is counterbalanced by the rigidity of fundamentalism, which allows an illusion, and sometimes a reality, of control. Even America is not immune--the simplistic bromides that pour from the mouths of TV newsmen and the reflexive flag-waving of citizens mark our own drift toward the absolute, a concrete view of the world that comforts us when our lives seem beyond our own control.
Stability and democracy are extremism's antidotes. After World War II, Germany was never forced to pay more than 5 percent of its GDP in reparations. Both Germany and Japan received massive infusions of money, used them to build participatory governments, and as a result eliminated the underworlds of fear and anger that had fed their militancy. Each country has struggled with its past, but neither has proved fertile ground for worldwide extremism since. But even as the United States embraced the idea of democracy-building in Europe, it turned away from it in other areas of the world--areas that now haunt us with their volatility. In 1945, just before Japan surrendered, a State Department report noted that "a review of the diplomatic history of the past 35 years has shown that petroleum has historically played a large role in the external relations of the United States than any other commodity." Roosevelt, with this in mind, stopped in Saudi Arabia on his way back from Yalta, and entertained its King on his cruiser Quincy. It was the beginning of a new sphere of influence, but one that would not benefit--as Germany and Japan would--from the export of democracy. In 1948, State Department official George Kennan authored his famous X memorandum, which laid out America's postwar foreign policy. In it, the idea of give-and-take was reduced to its latter half.
We have about 50 percent of the world's wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real test in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and benefaction--unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization.
There is little to add to that. For fifty years, our official policy was one that perpetuated inequality at the expense of human rights. And yet how many Americans have heard of the X memorandum? How many care?
They hate us because we don't even know why they hate us.
Sometime after Chris Matthews hosted John Lehman, CNBC invited Stanford University historian David Kennedy to talk about the economy. Kennedy is arguably the nation's foremost authority on World War II. He is the author of Freedom From Fear, the Oxford History of the United States' Pulitzer-Prizewinning, 1000-page examination of America from 1929 to 1945. The CNBC commentator immediately asked him if we could count on a war against terrorists to bolster our economy, just as World War II had snapped us from the Depression. Kennedy explained that World War II had been exceptional for the United States in that regard; that every other nation involved had seen its economy destroyed; and that wars in general were harmful to their participants' economic health. The question was representative, again, of our perverse view of the war, and I found myself wishing that someone had asked Kennedy, instead of about the economy, to read from the conclusion of his book:
Americans could not see the future clearly in 1945, but they could look back over the war they had just raged. They might have reflected on how slowly they had awakened to the menace of Hitlerism in the isolationist 1930s; on how callously they had barred the door to those seeking to flee from Hitler's Europe; on how heedlessly they had provoked Japan into a probably avoidable war in a region where few American interests were at stake; on how they had largely fought with America's money and machines and Russia's men, had fought in Europe only late in the day, against a foe mortally weakened by three years of brutal warfare in the east, had fought in the Pacific with a bestiality they did not care to admit; on how they had profaned their constitution by interning tens of thousands of citizens largely because of their race; on how they had denied most black Americans a chance to fight for their country; on how they had sullied their nation's moral standards with terror bombing in the closing months of the war; on how their leaders' stubborn insistence on unconditional surrender had led to the incineration of hundreds of thousands of already defeated Japanese, first by fire raids, then by nuclear blast;... on how they alone among warring peoples had prospered, emerging unscathed at home while 405,399 American soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen had died. Those men were dignified in death by their service, but they represented proportionally fewer military casualties than in any other belligerent country. Beyond the war's dead and wounded and their families, few Americans had been touched by the staggering sacrifices and unspeakable anguish that the war had visited upon millions of other people around the globe.
...[But] that did not describe the war that Americans remembered. In the mysterious zone where history mixes with memory to breed national myths, Americans after 1945 enshrined another war altogether. It was the "good war," maybe the last good war...
Kennedy, in that extraordinary passage, makes a host of controversial judgments, which informed people can and have disagreed with. But such is the nature of history: it is complex, and those who would make it otherwise defile it. World War II was neither a good war nor a bad war; it was a war, and if America had lofty intentions then they were among the first casualties. This is not a uniquely American pratfall; a just cause will often fall victim to the tactics employed in its name. It is only after the war that the cause will be re-enlisted, found beneath the soil and darkness that have covered it, and used to reassure us that what we did had a purity of purpose that others couldn't rival.
"We tell ourselves stories," Joan Didion has written, "in order to live." But the stories we tell can also be lethal, and we honor no one by glorifying the dastardly institution that has claimed so many brave men so many times before. It may be, in the coming days, that we need to send soldiers to Afghanistan and elsewhere to apprehend the men who ordered the September 11 atrocity. So be it. And if we want to rally ourselves with World War II as we march off into this new conflict, then again, so be it. But let it be the real World War II, with all its trepidation and contradiction, and not some factually deformed apparition we have conjured in our zeal for revenge. It is truth, in the end, that will make us better than our adversaries, and truth that will bring us closer to a day when all guns fall silent forever.
|Michael Manville's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications. He lives in Los Angeles.