In his 1974 book "The Russians," Hedrick Smith wrote that in the Soviet Union it felt as if World War II were only yesterday. Russians seemed to be...
In his 1974 book “The Russians,” Hedrick Smith wrote that in the Soviet Union it felt as if World War II were only yesterday. Russians seemed to be constantly reliving the Great Patriotic War.
There was a human reason for that, but there was also a political reason. Telling the story served the purposes of the state — and the V-E celebrations in Moscow last week showed that it still does.
Here, too. I grew up in the 1960s, watching “Combat” and “Rat Patrol” on TV, and “The Great Escape” and “The Longest Day” at the movies. The culture was saturated in World War II, and still is, considering that the war ended 60 years ago. We honor our octogenarians with movies like “Saving Private Ryan” and the HBO series “Band of Brothers.”
I’m a fan of many of these stories. But they do have a political content. They elevate war, and a particular war. Following Studs Terkel’s 1984 oral history, we have come to call the world’s most-lethal conflict “The Good War.” We have taken several lessons from it for application to future wars.
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The first is that some political leaders and movements, like Hitler and his National Socialists, are so evil that to try to understand them or deal with them is futile and morally contemptible. Essentially, every time we hear the term “appeasement” — Rush Limbaugh said yesterday morning that Europe is “appeasing Iran” — we connect to this.
Second is the idea that the United States has responsibility to eradicate such evil, even when it does not directly threaten us.
Third is belief that the need to do this, and our intention to promote democracy afterward, justifies our means.
You could see an echo of this in President Bush’s use of the term “axis of evil” and in his statement that Osama bin Laden had attacked us because he hated America for who we are (rather than anything our government had done). You could see it in the campaign that ran in the fall and winter of 2002 to personify Saddam Hussein as Hitler. You could see it in the photos of a leering Pfc. Lynndie England holding an Arab man on a dog leash. This is what people do when they think of their opponents as cast out.
This is not unique to Bush and the Republicans. Clinton also did it. In order to punish Saddam, he kept Iraq under an embargo that raised the death rate among Iraqi children. He ordered a 79-day bombing campaign against Serbia, a country that never attacked us and posed no threat to us. Serbia’s ruler, Slobodan Milosevic, was the subject of a Saddam-like propaganda campaign in the American press, including a cover photo on Newsweek with the cover line, “The Face of Evil.”
Had we not won World War II and been saturated in its historical and moral lore in the decades since, would we be doing this? I doubt it.
You can see the Germans’ view of the war in such movies as “Downfall,” “Stalingrad” and “Das Boot.” All end in futility and disaster. It should be no surprise that Germany did not join our enterprise in Iraq. When the French refused, we mocked them as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” Nobody mocked the Germans. They had earned the right to stay out.
Maybe the Germans have a better view of war, a more accurate one, than we. Or the men who knew the machine guns and mustard gas of World War I had a better view. Their view is expressed in “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
We forget World War I. It has vanished from our culture as thoroughly as George Washington. The Vietnam War, another bad investment, may fade, or be memorialized in the manner of “We Were Soldiers.” The Cold War with the Soviet Union — an empire run by totalitarians we learned to deal with — also fades. World War II endures.
By all means, let’s thank those of the “greatest generation” who were sent, usually as conscripts, to fight in a war in which perhaps 50 million were killed. But it is a mistake to distill too much inspiration from it. When we do that, we may be more like Hedrick Smith’s Russians than we care to think.
Bruce Ramsey’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org