Ken Burns’ “The War” will likely trigger a new round of Greatest Generation celebration and WWII retrospectives. It’s strange -- I haven’t really heard any of it yet, but it’s already exhausting me. Those thoughts, however, make me feel ungrateful and guilty -- so I go through a self-imposed Maoist self-confessional and grudgingly reaffirm both my gratitude and my own generation’s hopeless inferiority. That, in turn, makes me irritated again at the “greatest” generation. And so it goes.
Eventually I stop and ask -- why the hell am I thinking this? It’s World War II – history will probably remember it as America’s greatest collective achievement. After much internal debate, I think I’ve figured it out. My irritation about WWII worship has nothing to do with WWII. It’s about Iraq. It’s always about Iraq.
Let me say up front that I am not belittling our sacrifices or achievements in World War II. With the possible exception of ending slavery, winning that war is our nation’s greatest achievement -- the crown jewel thus far of the American experience. My frustration, then, isn’t with the war -- it’s with the political use of the war in modern times. Remember that the war itself is conceptually distinct from the modern political effects of WWII celebrations 60 years later. Thus, criticizing how people use (or think about) the war today in 2007 is not criticizing the war itself, or the soldiers who fought that war.
With that disclaimer in mind, I’m beginning to wonder whether the unambiguous celebration of WWII causes more harm than good. What bothers me is that many of the sentiments underlying modern WWII worship are the same that led our country to march blindly into Baghdad in 2003. Specifically, there are at least two ways WWII -- as conceived today -- is unhelpful in this respect.
First, it is a celebration of war. Wars, however, should not be uncritically celebrated. We should be solemnly grateful for the result, and we should honor the courage -- but these are different things than celebrating war itself. War is always a horrible thing, even when it’s absolutely necessary (as it was then).
Modern remembrances too often make the act of war seem more romantic than it is. If WWII taught us anything, it’s that we should try our best to avoid war. Its horrors and devastation were simply beyond words. But instead of seeing those horrors and resolving to stop war, many Americans today see WWII as a vindication of war itself. Because war was necessary in that instance, it becomes necessary in all instances.
When neocons (et al.) cite Roosevelt and Truman, they’re generally trying to use necessary war from the past as an all-purpose justification for wars everywhere “evil” lurks. Sadly, the public (at least when they’re scared) seems to agree. Mass acceptance of war as a foreign policy tactic was one reason the administration could sell Iraq so easily. The American people didn’t put up much of a fight.
Second, WWII (as conceived today) tends to reinforce the image that America is an unambiguously good actor. One of the most dangerous tendencies in American thought is to treat foreign policy as a morality play in which we represent the Platonic ideal of good. To be sure, I love America. I love Big Macs and Elvis Presley. I believe in our underlying institutions, and I’m thankful that I was born here. I love my parents too -- but it doesn’t mean they’re perfect. You can criticize your parents even while you love them. The same is true for America.
No matter what you think of America, it’s done some terrible things in its history -- even in WWII. Putting aside the atomic bomb, there’s the fire-bombing of Tokyo. And Dresden. Beyond the war, there's the fact that we had state-sponsored apartheid for practically all of our history. That’s not to say America doesn’t have its good sides too. Of course it does. The freedom to write this blog is but one example.
The point though is that we need a measured, more realistic view of our selves and our own goodness. We need more humility. The lack of humility -- i.e., our excessive self-confidence in our goodness -- is one reason why Iraq was such an easy sell. For too many people, when our military does it, it can’t be wrong. (This view often stems from conflating emotional attachment to individual soldiers with support of the broader military policy itself. It's important to keep these distinct though).
Again, WWII was a great achievement. But it doesn’t make war the answer, and it doesn’t make us unambiguously good. In fact, treating the war more realistically -- understanding its horrors -- is a greater tribute to our soldiers past and present than treating it like a simple morality play.
*[To be fair, Burns claims his documentary shows these horrors. My critique, however, relates to the public conceptualization of WWII, not so much Burns’ documentary.].