A Bad Peace: Fact Checking Chris Hayes’ and Matt Dawson’s “The Good War”

My husband dug up this comic strip of the “The Good War” in a newsfeed and forwarded it to me earlier this year. A few months and one major car crash later, I have finally been able to respond.

Chris Hayes’ blog post can be found here. A very hip comic strip of Hayes’ post was done by Mark Dawson. For all who are interested, it can be found here. I am italicizing Hayes’ words, my responses will be placed in normal text.

But first, we’re not even going to start with the text. We’re going to start with the website this was found on, The Nib. I pulled it up so that I would have “The Good War” comic strip in front of me to fully understand each argument and cartoon. I was quickly met with a text box with an email opt-in that said “Rise and shine, the world is doomed.”

The world is doomed???

Any media company that makes this their slogan to get you to opt in to their emails has absolutely no idea what has gone on in human history. Military and civilian deaths from war are the lowest they have ever been in the past 500 years. I am in the middle of listening to Dan Carlin’s podcast on public torture and execution throughout history. We live in a time where most of the world abhors and has made illegal the torture of criminals both in public and private. People used to sit and watch and cheer at the most barbaric acts even a few hundred years ago. Today, we start questioning whether it’s humane to allow a convicted murderer to choose death by firing squad in Utah. (Heck, these criminals even get to choose a final meal. How many innocent people throughout history were publicly tortured and executed without that much?) This was my first clue that there would be a certain amount of inaccurate information in this piece. Now onto the main event…

On September 11, 2001, George W. Bush wrote the following impression in his diary: “The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today.” He wasn’t alone in this assessment. In the days after the attacks, editorialists, pundits and citizens reached with impressive unanimity for this single historical precedent. The Sept. 12 New York Times alone contained 13 articles mentioning Pearl Harbor.Five years after 9/11 we are still living with the legacy of this hastily drawn analogy. Whatever the natural similarities between December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001, the association of the two has led us to convert–first in rhetoric, later in fact–a battle against a small band of clever, murderous fundamentalists into a worldwide war of epic scale.

A worldwide war of epic scale? The total number of deaths for World War II is conservatively placed at 60,000,000– though the number of civilian deaths in China alone may be well over 50,000,000. The most generous estimates for civilian casualties in Iraq estimate 500,000– and these are not direct war casualties. These numbers include indirect causes like hospitals being overwhelmed with war wounded, contaminated water, etc. The Iraq War is nowhere in the same realm of destruction as World War II. Furthermore, the documental centre for Human Rights in Iraq has compiled documentation for over 600,000 civilian executions in Iraq under Saddam Husseein— these would be direct killings and would not count indirectly deaths related to his regime such as being unable to receive medical care, accumulated stress from living under a brutal dictator or public health hazards like water contamination.

The toll has been steep: more than $1 trillion will be spent for the ongoing combat and occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq; 2,900 dead American soldiers, 20,000 wounded, and somewhere between 50,000 to 150,000 dead Iraqi and Afghan civilians. 

See above. Also, civilian casualties in the Middle East have increased dramatically since the 2011 withdrawal of American troops.

We have detained hundreds of “enemy combatants” in Guantánamo, denying them due process, and until recently, habeas corpus. The terms “black sites” and “extraordinary rendition” have entered our lexicon, respective euphemisms for secret U.S. prisons abroad where torture occurs and for the practice of transferring prisoners to other countries that employ torture. Polls show international opinion of the United States at record lows.

So you’ve established that torture is morally repugnant. You’ve asserted that United States government (or its soldiers) should not be involved in torture. But you have not addressed how the United States or the rest of the world should have dealt with Saddam Hussein’s use of torture on civilians and his genocide of 180,000 Kurdish men, women and children. Is torture only bad if Americans do it? Is it OK for Iraqis to torture other Iraqis? It seems that you’re asserting that United States should never have gotten involved in Iraq, but you seem to be against torture. A more productive line of reasoning to explore in this piece might have been how to stop torture and human rights abuses in Iraq without a full out war, but you (many other Westerners) have failed to address this fundamental issue.

How did we get here?

The best place to look for the answer is not in the days after the attacks, but in the years before. Examining the cultural mood of the late ’90s allows us to separate the natural reaction to a national trauma from any underlying predispositions. During that period, the country was in the grip of a strange, prolonged obsession with World War II and the generation that had fought it.

The pining for the glory days of the Good War has now been largely forgotten, but to sift through the cultural detritus of that era is to discover a deep longing for the kind of epic struggle the War on Terror would later provide. The standard view of 9/11 is that it “changed everything.” But in its rhetoric and symbolism, the WWII nostalgia laid the conceptual groundwork for what was to come–the strange brew of nationalism, militarism and maudlin sentimentality that constitutes post-9/11 culture.To fully understand what has gone wrong since 9/11, it is necessary to rewind the tape to that moment just before.  

Before the storm

The flag of our fathers The new militarismThe perils of unityThe late ’90s was a strange time in American history. With the Cold War over, the country faced no overarching enemy for the first time in decades. The United States seemed possessed of no greater national purpose than making money through IPOs and an ever-expanding Dow. Our politics were dominated by the petty and trivial: from school uniforms to the president’s sex life.  

Actually, there was plenty going on in the ’90’s that could have been addressed in political discourse and action but wasn’t. The United States’ hesitancy to get involved in international affairs during the Clinton era came at a high price. In Rwanda during the spring of 1994, 800,000 people died over a 100 days while the world stood by and largely did nothingIn Srbenica, over 7,000 men of all ages were executed over 10 days and tens of thousands of Muslim refugees fled when UN peacekeeping forces failed to take action against a Serbian assault. This was the product of three years of American foreign policy attempting to muddle through Serbian atrocities instead of committing greater forces. The ’90’s were not the finest hour of the international community in protecting human rights. There was plenty going on, school uniforms and Clinton’s sex life just proved to be a convenient distraction from genocide.

Memories of former glory rushed in to fill this vacuum. In 1994, the 50th anniversary of D-Day prompted both an NBC special commemoration hosted by Tom Brokaw and the publication of historian Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day June 6, 1994: The Climactic Battle of World War II, which would go on to sell 800,000 copies. The book attracted the attention of Steven Spielberg–a man with a preternatural sense of the zeitgeist–who would launch the pop cultural phenomenon in all its excess in 1998 with Saving Private Ryan, which opened to rave reviews and grossed $433 million. 

Well the fact that the ’90’s was 50 years after World War II and that people should be reexamining the this time period isn’t exactly strange. We’re at the 50 year mark for the start of the Vietnam War and Ken Burns decided to make a documentary about it (which I strongly suggest you see). Possibly a little more odd is that there were three different movies about the Vietnam War that all debuted in 1987 (Hamburger HillGood Morning Vietnam and Full Metal Jacket), but Hollywood goes in for multiple movies about the same subject matter all the time–tornadoes, volcanoes, unplanned pregnancy…

An explosion of associated products came on the heels of Saving Private Ryan’s commercial success: Brokaw’s three “Greatest Generation” books (which sold 5 million copies), a book about veterans of the Pacific Theater called Flags of Our Fathers (a film adaptation produced by Spielberg and directed by Clint Eastwood will be released this fall), and a clunking Bruce Willis vehicle called Hart’s War. With such an irresistible financial incentive, Ambrose would generate 10 more books between 1994 and 2001, including a distilled history of the war for “young readers” called The Good Fight. Tom Hanks, who starred in Saving Private Ryan, became a kind of WWII commemoration crusader, cutting a series of radio ads that advocated for a World War II memorial to be built on the Mall. After a seven-year-campaign, it was dedicated in 2004.

But fighting World War II stopped the Holocaust. Isn’t that a good thing?

Nostalgia quickly descended into kitsch: In 1999, People named “The World War II Soldier” one of its “25 Most Intriguing People,” right next to Ricky Martin and Ashley Judd. But unlike so many pop culture phenomena, this one had legs, extending into the new millennium when Hollywood released the summer blockbuster Pearl Harbor in May 2001. Months later, HBO broadcast with great fanfare “Band of Brothers,” a miniseries based on Ambrose’s eponymous book about the exploits of the famed “E Company” as it fought its way across Europe. Produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, the series debuted on Sept. 9, 2001.  

The 90’s had no monopoly on World War II movies. A small slice of the canon of World War II movies goes as follows: Casablanca (1942), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), Stalag 17 (1953), The Dam Busters (1955), Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Great Escape (1963) The Dirty Dozen (1967), The Longest Day (1962), Where Eagles Dare (1968), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), Kelly’s Heroes (1970), Patton (1970), Midway (1976)… I could continue on ad nauseum, but the point is that people have made movies about World War II since, well, World War II. World War II became a uniquely uniting experience in that an entire generation of people from all over the world shared the experience of being involved in an international conflict. People want to understand World War II and explore it. It’s a necessary part of understanding the world we lived in which was affected by it.

Explaining why he made Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg told an interviewer, “The most important thing about this picture is that I got to make a movie about a time that my dad flourished in.” During the Vietnam War, Spielberg explained, he resented people like his father who were proud to be American and displayed the flag. “Only when I became older did I begin to understand my dad’s generation,” Spielberg said. “I went from resenting the American flag to thanking it.”That American flag receives loving treatment in Saving Private Ryan’s opening moments, when it stiffly, proudly flutters across the screen. In fact, the flag, which had become a legendary culture war symbol after being torched during Vietnam protests, enjoys an earnest revival throughout the literature of the WWII nostalgia. In Flags of Our Fathers, James Bradley writes that the image of his father and his fellow soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima “transported many thousands of anxious, grieving, and war-weary Americans into a radiant state of mind: a kind of sacred realm, where faith, patriotism, mythic history, and the simple capacity to hope intermingled.”  In The Greatest Generation, Brokaw also celebrates this simple, old-fashioned patriotism. “They love life and love their country,” Brokaw writes of his subjects, before adding, “and they are not ashamed to say just that.”“If there’s a common lament of this generation,” he notes later, it is “where is the old-fashioned patriotism that got them through so much heartache and sacrifice?”It’s not just patriotism, though, that distinguishes “the Greatest Generation any society has ever produced.” According to Brokaw, members of it share “a sense of duty to their country” that is not “much in fashion anymore.” Due to the “military training and discipline” they received during the war, they are models of self-control, and complain that, “the way you’re told to raise your kids now, there’s no discipline.” They are allergic to conspicuous consumption, humble and stoic, “refusing to talk about [the war] unless questioned and then only reluctantly.” They are “self-sufficient,” and characterized by “a sense of personal responsibility and a commitment to honesty.”  If this litany of values seems familiar, it’s because in the oppositional vocabulary of the culture war, they are virtues that, like the flag itself, conservatives claim as their own. In conservative mythology, it was the baby boomers–undisciplined, self-indulgent, unpatriotic–who unmoored the country from the traditional values of their forebears. Because the right has spent the better part of three decades pillorying the cultural legacy of the ’60s, it’s impossible for any work that celebrates the WWII generation not to serve a tacit culture war function.

And yet you are pillorying the cultural legacy of World War II and in favor of the so-called values of the Baby Boomer generation. So one could make an argument that “The Good War” blog post and accompanying comic strip likewise serve a tacit culture war function.

Even before 9/11, Karl Rove understood this all too well. In his essay “Operation Enduring Analogy: World War II, the War on Terror and the Uses of Historical Memory,” David Hoogland Noon, a history professor at the University of Alaska, Southeast, writes that even in his first campaign George W. Bush “consistently referenced World War II not simply to justify his own policy aims, but more importantly as a cultural project as well as an ongoing gesture of self-making,” positioning himself as “an heir to the reputed greatest generation of American leaders.”“In the world of our fathers, we have seen how America should conduct itself,” Bush said in a 1999 speech at the Citadel. Now, the moment had come “to show that a new generation can renew America’s purpose.” Throughout both his campaigns, Bush would go out of his way to criticize the dominant ethos of “If it feels good, do it,” instead calling for a “culture in which each of us understands we’re responsible for the decisions we make.” Bush’s allusions to the Greatest Generation were so persistent that the press came to see him–a Boomer child of privilege known for his youthful carousing–as a kind of throwback. Reporting on Bush’s first inaugural address, Newsweek’s Evan Thomas wrote that “Bush wants the White House to recover some of its dignity, to rise above baby-boomer self-indulgence and aspire to the order and self-discipline prized by the Greatest Generation.”  After 9/11 it seemed as if the entire country was ready to adopt the Greatest Generation values that Bush had so assiduously claimed as his own. We celebrated the manly heroism of the cops and firefighters who sacrificed their lives to save people. Editorials proclaimed the “death of irony” and a return to earnest patriotism. The flag that Spielberg had once resented and later come to love seemingly now hung from every home. 

OK, so G.W. Bush tells some students at the Citadel that people need to take responsibility for their decisions and people are grateful that firefighters and police risked and even gave their lives to save others after the September 11 attacks. This does not qualify as proof that people were deluded about the nature of war.

Bush, then, emerged as a kind of prophet. Because his image-makers had already portrayed him as having abandoned Boomer frivolity for Greatest Generation discipline, he seemed the natural choice to lead the country through its trials. In 2002, after congressional Democrats suffered losses in the mid-terms despite heavy campaigning from Bill Clinton, Time’s Margaret Carlson concluded this was due to a post 9/11 “shift in the culture,” in which “Clinton-era values are no longer America’s.” “Though a baby boomer,” Carlson observed, “Bush rejects the instant-gratification ethic embraced by Clinton, the nation’s first baby boomer President. … [Bush] often laments not being one of the Greatest Generation he so admires. …Whereas Clinton liked going on MTV with 18-year-olds, Bush urges them and their parents to return to an ‘era of responsibility.’ “

 I suppose the larger issue here is that you feel G.W. Bush’s reverence for the Greatest Generation led him to get involved in a war to prove himself, but if all you can do is keep bringing up that Bush urged people to be responsible for their decisions, it’s not proof of that.

It is impossible to separate the values celebrated in the Greatest Generation nostalgia from the experience of war itself, for the soldiers’ experiences formed the core of the entire liturgy.Stephen Ambrose, whose work serves as the foundation for the canon, documents the minutest details of soldiers’ battle experience, expressing “awe” at what they were able to endure. When Ambrose’s account was dramatized in Saving Private Ryan, critics hailed its unvarnished look at the mayhem of battle. Janet Maslin’s review in the New York Times summed up the consensus. While “the combat film has disintegrated into a showcase for swagger, cynicism, obscenely overblown violence and hollow, self-serving victories,” she wrote, Spielberg’s film “simply looks at war as if war had not been looked at before.” This description suffices for the film’s opening sequence, but when applied to the film’s overall meaning, it obscures much more than it reveals. In the film, a small company of American soldiers manages to survive the D-Day invasion, and are then led by their commander, John Miller (Tom Hanks), on a quest to find Private Ryan. Ryan’s three brothers have, unbeknownst to him, all recently died in combat, and U.S. General Command has decided to find the lone surviving Ryan boy and get him home to his grieving mother. Miller and his company, comprising a charmingly diverse assemblage of white guys, wander the French countryside still dotted with Germans, looking for the elusive private, who had parachuted ahead with the airborne.  But the film’s real message revolves not around Ryan, but Cpl. Timothy Upham. We first meet Upham when Miller goes to fetch him from his desk where he is poring over maps and translating communiqués from French and German. Young and wispy, with hair brushing his upper lip, Upham is a translator, not a fighter: He hasn’t fired a gun since basic training and wants to take his typewriter with him. He quickly earns the unit’s ire by annoyingly chatting everyone up and quoting books and poetry.  At one point, after engaging a German tank that manages to kill one of their own men, the American soldiers capture the lone surviving German and force him to dig his own grave before they execute him. As the German pathetically mutters nonsensical English phrases, Upham objects to Miller. “Captain, this isn’t right,” he says, “You know this. He’s a prisoner, he surrendered. He surrendered, sir.” Miller is skeptical, but ultimately swayed. He blindfolds the German and tells him to walk 1,000 paces and then turn himself in to the first American soldiers he sees. The other men grumble.It’s not the last we see of the German. In the film’s climatic battle, as the Americans try to hold a bridge under a heavy German attack, this same former prisoner returns to shoot and kill Captain Miller. Meanwhile, during the battle, Upham is paralyzed by a fear so total that, as his Jewish comrade wrestles hand-to-hand with a menacing Nazi, he can only cower in the stairwell below, crying as the Nazi plunges a knife in the Jewish soldier’s chest.  The message is clear. In the great struggle for the future of the free world, the intellectual cannot be trusted. His concern for the laws of war means he is weak and cowardly, and will contribute to defeat. Only the true soldier can win the war. This is the ethos of the Cult of the Soldier, which would come to entirely dominate our politics in the years to follow.

Your proof that the American military, president and people were delusional in their support for military action in Afghanistan revolves around fictional characters in a movie?! That’s not proof. That’s critical analysis and personal opinion, but it’s not proof of anything politically or historically. Upham does represent a rather complex figure. He opposes the death of the German soldier, but does not intervene to save the life of an American soldier. He doesn’t fit nicely into a “good guy-bad guy” narrative. That’s one of the great things about Saving Private Ryan is that the soldiers were neither all good- nor all bad.

“For it has been said so truthfully that it is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press,” Zell Miller boomed during his keynote speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention. “It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the agitator, who has given us the freedom to protest. It is the soldier who salutes the flag, serves beneath the flag, whose coffin is draped by the flag who gives that protester the freedom he abuses to burn that flag.”The Cult of the Soldier wasn’t confined solely to the Republican Party. Just a month earlier, the Democratic National Convention had been converted into a four-day military pageant, with home movies of John Kerry as a young solider, his Swift Boat crew assembled on stage on the convention’s final night, and the nominee opening his acceptance speech with a stiff salute and the words, “John Kerry, reporting for duty.”  It didn’t work. Whatever points Kerry scored from his military valor were negated by ceaseless attacks on his character: from the incessant charge of flip-flopping to the slander of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. More devastatingly, Kerry’s personal story didn’t fit the idealized notion of honorable, dutiful, courageous combat, because after his service he returned home to question the war’s purpose and the war crimes of his fellow soldiers. If he played Miller in the war’s first act, he played Upham in its second.But even without the particulars of Kerry’s own moral journey, it was still destined to fail. Reality can’t compete with the power of these established symbols. To reinforce the Cult of the Soldier is to reinforce the same set of oppositional culture war cliches that undergird our current political discourse. You’re either with the war or you are against the troops. Not everyone was so naive as to miss this. Even before 9/11, historian Howard Zinn, himself a WWII bombardier, wrote in The Progressive that he refused to celebrate the Greatest Generation “because in doing so we are celebrating courage and sacrifice in the cause of war. And we are miseducating the young to believe that military heroism is the noblest form of heroism. … Indeed, the current infatuation with World War II prepares us–innocently on the part of some, deliberately on the part of others–for more war, more military adventures, more attempts to emulate the military heroes of the past.”

Howard Zinn makes a lot of great points. We need to understand that there are many types of heroism. Many veterans I have talked to express a great deal of admiration for people who simply work hard to make the world a better place, like teachers, parents, doctors and nurses. And we should never romanticize war to think that it will be an adventure. Though Interestingly enough, few people who had seen World War I approached World War II as an “adventure”. I encourage you to listen to Eleanor Roosevelt’s speech on the United States entering World War II and King George VI’s speech on Britain entering World War II.

The experience of Vietnam had largely succeeded in cleansing Americans of whatever romantic notions of military heroism they may have once held dear. For neoconservatives, our collective suspicion of war was a weak-kneed impediment to fulfilling our imperial calling, a national illness they diagnosed as “Vietnam syndrome.” Searching for a cure took up no small amount of conservative energy, but it was the centrists and liberals who produced the WWII nostalgia who ultimately provided it.

If you are talking about Vietnam, there was no “imperial calling”. The idea was to oust a communist government, not to make Vietnam a colony. Perhaps you have the Vietnam War and the Spanish-American War mixed up. Again, let me refer you to Ken Burns’ documentary on the Vietnam War. Even the extensive occupation of both Germany and Japan after World War II did not result in these nations becoming colonies of the United States.

There are significant differences between the War on Terror and the Vietnam War. I have summarized them here.

It is a grand irony that Spielberg claimed repeatedly that his entire motivation behind making Saving Private Ryan was to deconstruct the simplified version of WWII that Americans had come to accept. “All wars,” he said in a typical interview, are “chambers of horrors.” And that’s certainly true of the film’s opening and of the gruesome descriptions in Ambrose’s books and Brokaw’s recounting. But what emerges from these works is a picture of war as a chamber of physical horrors–torn limbs, exposed viscera, muck, blood. Absent completely are the moral horrors of combat, the horror of taking a life, of feeling the killer within. There’s a good deal of evidence that suggests the most traumatic experience of war isn’t being the target of violence, but rather the agent. A 1994 study of post-traumatic stress in veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam found that “responsibility for killing another human being is the single most pervasive, traumatic experience of war.”So when, as Spielberg and Brokaw both point out, WWII veterans refuse to say they are heroes, it may not be due to any generational humility, but rather because, in their view, they really aren’t heroes. Taking another human life may sometimes be necessary, but it is rarely, if ever, heroic.

But it’s not the taking of life that many people feel qualifies WWII veterans as heroic. It was their willingness to give their life to stop the spread of tyranny and oppression.

In fact, the more recent Greatest Generation texts by and large display far less moral nuance than the classic World War II literature produced by the men who fought in it. In Catch-22, to name just one example, there is no glory or moral clarity, only surreal, horrific absurdity. At one point, as Yossarian is about to embark on a bombing run, he asks his comrades, “Do you guys realize, we are going to bomb a city that has no military targets, no railroads, no industries, only people?”

Catch-22 was written by a World War II veteran, but it’s not a historical work. I read it in my senior capstone course. It’s a commentary on “the establishment” and on the author’s experiences during the war. But you shouldn’t be citing one writer’s work of fiction as history. (Remember Galaxy Quest?) And Joseph Heller can’t speak for the experience or feelings of other veterans, who encompass a wide array of experiences and perspectives. But for the record, yes, the Allies engaged in what was called “area bombing” with the purpose of diminishing morale of the Germans. (Though most of these cities were actually major industrial centers.)  Patton himself was actually against this tactic, which was both brutal to civilians and largely ineffective at stopping the German military. It was Allies ability to overpower the Luftwaffe and make successful wins on the ground that proved to be devastating to the German army. But the Allies weren’t alone in the usage of area bombing– the Germans actually started it.

The WWII that emerges from accounts of the late ’90s is one scrubbed clean of its moral complexity. There is no mention of American big business financing the build-up of the Nazi war machine, no America First campaign determined not to shed American blood for European Jews, no firebombing of civilians in Dresden. The war was difficult, yes, and bloody, but pure and just: a battle, not to put too fine a point on it, between good and evil. 

Interesting, because the Vietnam War protest movement has been similarly scrubbed clean of its moral complexity as well. Americans are typically unaware that Vietnamese citizens were killing and torturing each other in the name of building a better nation both before and after American involvement. Rarely do people talk about the Weather Underground and the fact that they committed terrorist acts by bombing government and military targets and targeting civilians as well. Rarely do people talk about the harassment that Vietnam War soldiers endured by protesters who never bothered to learn what an individual soldier had done or not done in Vietnam. Once again, let me refer you to Ken Burns’ documentary on the Vietnam War. There is a poignant moment when a woman who was an anti-war activist tearfully described how she had, in her prejudice against soldiers, done things that she was ashamed of and how sorry she felt about her actions. 

The overall goal of the Vietnam War protest movement was laudable. They wanted to see both Americans and Vietnamese live peaceful lives free from violence. But the actions many people took in the name of that were unethical and amoral. Acts of terrorism are not confined to the military or war. They are the product of desperate people who are convinced they have the moral high ground.

In the hands of the men who would come to dominate American military policy in the Bush administration, this Manichean framework was a useful template to apply indiscriminately to any and all of the military confrontations they had long sought. To the neocons and some breakaway lefties, al-Qaeda members are “Islamofascists,” 21st century heirs to the murderous ideologies of Nazism, fascism and totalitarianism. It is always Munich 1938, every dictator is a “tyrant,” and anyone opposed to a state of perpetual war is guilty of “appeasement.”“In the 20th century, some chose to appease murderous dictators, whose threats were allowed to grow into genocide and global war,” Bush said in a March 17, 2003, address that would herald the beginning of the bombing of Iraq. “In this century, when evil men plot chemical, biological and nuclear terror, a policy of appeasement could bring destruction of a kind never before seen on this earth.”  

Appeasement was the first course of action with Hitler. At the 1938 Munich Conference, France and Great Britain met with Italy and Germany and gave Hitler the Sudetenland in hopes that such a gesture would halt his takeover of Europe. It didn’t. Actually, appeasement and concessions were the first strategy for dealing with Slobodan Milosevic as well. That didn’t work either.

I believe the very definition of a dictator is to be oppressive and almost always violent, so when you say that the scenario plays out that “every dictator is a ‘tyrant’, we could quibble over semantics, but it’s pretty much true. (Are you saying there are some dictators who are not tyrants? Are you implying that Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were not tyrants? If they do not meet your definition of a tyrant, then why not?) As for “perpetual war”, George W. Bush was the one who signed the Status of Forces agreement in 2008 which planned for all American troops to be out by 2011. That’s not “perpetual war”.

Making WWII the touchstone for martial combat allowed the militarists we politely call “neoconservatives” to imbue all wars with the same moral purpose. The Greatest Generation nostalgia succeeded in helping to subtly shift the burden of proof, such that wars were presumed innocent and righteous, as opposed to the far more sane position that war is guilty until proven innocent.  

That’s a pretty black and white way of looking at it. Under that assumption, what position would you have held in World War II as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan took over nations before the eyes of the world? If all wars are guilty until proven innocent, what should have been done about the human rights abuses in Afghanistan and Iraq? What about the continued efforts of terrorists to kill Americans? If you’re opposed to war as a strategy for dealing with these problems, then you should give some alternatives and provide reasons for them.

If there’s a single guiding ethos for the Bush’s administration’s foreign policy, it is this: that contrary to the age-old insight about the “fog of war,” war brings moral clarity even as it clouds the senses. In the first days of the escalating missile and rocket strikes between Israel and Hezbollah, Dan Bartlett, a White House aide, explained that “[The president] mourns the loss of every life. Yet out of this tragic development, he believes a moment of clarity has arrived.”Through the crucible of battle, evil and good announce themselves. In the absence of violence, they remain hidden.  The people who produced the books and movies that would come to define WWII nostalgia were by no means reactionaries. Spielberg is famously liberal, Brokaw widely rumored to be a Democrat, and Ambrose an establishment centrist who in 1995 penned an op-ed calling for Colin Powell to run for president.So whatever the nationalistic and militaristic effects of the symbolic vocabulary they built, war and patriotism weren’t the primary aims. No, what seems to motivate the soft-focus reflections on the ’40s is the unparalleled experience of unity that the Good War created. “The one time the nation got together was World War II,” says Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) in The Greatest Generation. “We stood as one. We spoke as one. We clenched our fists as one.”  By appealing to an era of broad national consensus, Brokaw, Spielberg and Ambrose tapped a popular urge to rise above the social striations and fissures of post-’60s upheavals. After 30 years of culture war, they were calling for a truce. And as the initial reaction to 9/11 showed, Americans were ready for one.  On the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, with the country still just three months removed from the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush invoked, as he would many times in the years that followed, the unwavering unity America had displayed during World War II. “During four years of war,” he said, “no one doubted the rightness of our cause; no one wavered in the quest of victory.”  A state in which “no one doubts the rightness” of its cause is a state in which politics has ceased to exist. In retrospect, that is what the nation sought in the waning days of the 20th century. Crowding into theatres to watch Saving Private Ryan, curling up to read The Greatest Generation, Americans were longing for something greater, more noble and less petty than mere politics. But mere politics turns out to be the only bulwark we have against the collective madness that war engenders. When politics dies, when it is suffocated underneath the warm blanket of patriotic consensus, the conscience of the republic dies along with it.

At the start of the Iraq War, around 15% of Americans felt that the US should stay out of Iraq, but by 2014 that number had jumped to 41%. People’s views on particular conflicts have changed as we take a longer range view. There is no “collective madness that war engenders”. People’s views about wars tend to vary a great deal with time and current events. If you think you are in a small minority, you’re not. (Which is why you have over 200,000 followers on Facebook for your little journalism site.)


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