World War II seems to be getting a lot of what might be called revisionist treatment these days. Such rethinking of history is, on principle, a good thing, although sometimes it does little more than revive old propaganda and partisanship. It is good, for instance, that people who are concerned by the overgrown and uncurbed monster that the U.S. government has become are taking another and less worshipful look at the motives and accomplishments of Lincoln, where it might be thought the current evil trend began. Good, too, that the horrible reality of the worldwide conflagration of 1939-45 is making some headway in the public consciousness against the romantic fable of the “Greatest Generation.”
Decent people are quite right to feel that war, which makes up so salient a part of history, is an awful thing, fraught with destruction, death of the innocent, and disastrous unintended consequences. There is much sobering truth (and shattering of cherished ideals) to be gained by looking anew at the revered statesmen who led their people to war, though societies seldom take the right lessons from history. Very successful politicians are usually sociopaths. They believe nothing and say whatever they think it is to their advantage to say. This description most certainly fits the executive officeholders and senators who are currently plotting war on Ukraine, Syria, and Iran. The description, I think, fits Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, Wilson, and George W. Bush, as well as most of the dictators of the 20th century. They have no feeling for fellow citizens who may suffer from their actions. It is well to be eternally aware of this fact.
World War II revisionism seems to be coming from several different directions. Libertarians, who are always critical of collective endeavor and government action, often with good reason, want to repudiate the whole business of the world war as an unnecessary event brought about chiefly by the machinations of Great Britain. Their critique coalesces with the old Irish-American and German-American hatred of the British, and repeats the dubious theories that Hitler had limited aims and was forced into war with Britain because of misguided diplomacy or Churchill’s malice, and that we were tricked by FDR into war with the Japanese Empire. Such interpretations often rest upon a too-static and literal reading of official diplomacy that ignores the terrible contingencies faced by flesh-and-blood humanity as well as the opportunistic militarism of Germany.
Then there is the recent book that portrays American soldiers “raping and robbing their way across France” more barbarously than the Germans. It is well for Americans to be made aware that we are not saints. We continue to believe, for instance, that Union soldiers rushed into the arms of gratefully emancipated slaves, when the truth is very far from this imagined benevolence. The History Channel “experts” continue to declare that Sherman’s army committed no destruction in its unopposed march through Georgia and Carolina, despite literally overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The Civil War having whipped up an atmosphere of violent righteousness, it was easy thereafter to carry total war to the Plains Indians and the Filipinos. After all, they were resisting “the best government on earth.” Perhaps more importantly, they were an obstacle to business, and, as a Republican hero was later to say, “The business of America is business.”
One has the feeling that George W. Bush’s problem with “terrorists” and his rather self-contradictory stance toward the Arabs and Islam had little to do with the American victims, who, after all, hardly exceed the week’s traffic toll. Rather, war had to be made on the terrorists because they interfered with business. One of his first priorities on September 11, after his personal safety, was to make sure his Saudi Arabian associates got out of the country quickly so as not to suffer from any popular backlash.
Americans, it would seem, are indifferent to the innocents killed in our pursuit of “terrorists.” American soldiers are men like others, and subject to the sins of war as much as others. There is no room for self-righteousness. Doubtless, there is some truth to American misbehavior in World War II, but we need to know more about the proportions. Fighting frontline soldiers don’t have much time or attention for raping or for robbing more than what fills immediate needs. It is the occupation troops who come along after who commit the atrocities. In the case of the U.S. occupation troops, it may be that we are dealing with a social problem entirely different from the war itself. It has been estimated that a quarter of a million French civilians were killed by the Allies in the process of liberation—collateral damage. Atrocities committed not by individuals but by the highest authorities with foreknowledge.
We should forever remember the horror and futility of war and the abuses of powerful people. But some of the current discussion seems to me to move from there onto more doubtful ground. There is such a thing as patriotism, Edmund Burke’s “cheap defense of nations,” even though in our time it has been overwhelmed by the terrible abstraction of nationalism, in which the rulers of powerful states, like Nazi Germany or the United States today, always become aggressive and state-worshiping. In our case, this has much to do, I think, with the fact that “America” no longer exists except as an imperial, pseudodemocratic abstraction, not as a land and a people.
Even with the best of intentions, war is sometimes thrust upon us. To believe otherwise is leftist utopianism. There is such a thing as patriotism, the ready defense of one’s own land and people, which has been immemorially celebrated by mankind and might be thought to be a natural instinct, but it needs a land and a people to identify with. A ruler who wants his country to be international policeman or peacekeeper is no patriot but a fool in love with his own glory.
Whatever the flaws of the British Empire and the dubious course of American entry into World War II, surely it is proper history to make a distinction between the basic decency of the British and the bullying Germans who erected concentration camps and attacked and sought to enslave their neighbors. Surely, a world with Western Europe dominated by Nazis and the Pacific by Japanese, even lacking an imminent attack on the United States, would have been a long-term peril to civilization. The problem, perhaps, is not that the Americans joined the war, but the incredible shortsightedness and naiveté, as well as treason, that our leaders showed toward communism. It would have been possible to accept Russia as an ally without buying into the benevolent Soviet myth, but Americans seem to have been incapable of such plain sense. Surely, we must prefer a Churchill and a De Gaulle to a Hitler and his boasting accomplices who brought destruction to their own country in total disregard of the welfare of their people. I confess to incomprehension and suspicion of anyone who would say otherwise. Should we have honored Quisling and Pétain and blamed the brave Norwegians, Frenchmen, and other Europeans who died resisting foreign rule?
It is true that the consequences of the war brought about the destruction of much of the civilization that was being defended. That is a part of the unavoidable tragedy of history. World War II was merely an epilogue to the still incomprehensible slaughter of World War I. And that was strictly a product of the kind of crazed nationalism that too many Americans today seem to display. After the Great War all nations had been cured of this malady except the Germans and the Japanese, but that made war once more inescapable. Even with the best intentions, war will sometimes be thrust upon the most peace-loving people. But, alas, our country, or rather our “leaders,” seem now dedicated to a megalomaniacal lust for domination, for unnecessary wars of choice, concocted from the delusions or hidden agendas of people with too much power.