Remembering the "Good War"

Ju_87D-1Today marks the 70th anniversary of World War II. Technically, it only marks the German invasion of Poland; Britain and France did not declare war until September 3, 1939. But that would be quibbling to the Poles who were dive-bombed, not to mention the Chinese whom Imperial Japan had been slaughtering since 1931.

The wave of Second World War nostalgia seems to have mercifully faded (the only people who never romanticize the “Good War” were those who actually fought in it). But as movies like “The Inglorious Bastards” prove, there is still a fascination with the last global war. It’s a sign of the times that we view the the bloodiest conflict in human history through rose-colored glasses. We project our desperate need for a war with purpose and righteousness on to World War II. Our search for clarity only obscures history. People in 1939 faced the same choices, grappled with the same dilemmas, as we do in 2009. Is war ever justified? Should we mind our own business, or become embroiled in foreign conflicts? As British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain said when Hitler was dismembering Czechoslovakia,

“How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

He could have been speaking of Sunni and Shia or Pashtun and Tajik.

Most of all, there was plenty of doubt as to the real reasons for war. Communists were convinced that this was a civil war between capitalists, and they were going to sit it out (until the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union). Others knew that the nations fighting Hitler in the name of freedom had signs reading “no dogs or Chinese allowed” in their African and Asian empires.

Yet whatever their reasons, the democracies did fight.  Most of us would agree that it was a good thing that they did. It’s wrong to draw too many parallels between a conflict of nations like World War II and conflicts of nation-building like Afghanistan and Iraq. Portraying the “war on terror” as an existential struggle like that against Nazism is ludicrous.

But the notion that it’s always wrong for a nation to resort to violence is equally dangerous. When Britain and France went to war in the late summer of 1939, they didn’t realize just how existential the war really was. It wasn’t until fascist Germany and Japan blitzed most of Europe and Asia, that everyone realized just how serious the stakes were.

I came across this passage in the first Economist editorial published after the start of World War II:

“It [Nazism] has started compelling us to devote our energies to rearmament, our leisure to drilling, our income to taxes; it has cast over our lives the shadow of doom. Hitler has proved that we cannot be indifferent to the ways in which other people govern themselves.”

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2 Responses to Remembering the "Good War"

  1. Mr. Peck,

    I am unclear on the point of your blog. You quote Neville Chamberlain on his insistence that Britain should not risk the lives of its youth in the affairs of unknown, far-off peoples and point out how that parallels the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since most would suggest that Mr. Chamberlain was unwise not to take a stand in this instance, that a early stand against Fascist aggression might have prevented WW II, it would seem that you are implying that intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan is a good idea. You further quote the Economist to what would seem to be a parallel line of reasoning. It seemed to me that overall that this an argument for war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then however your wrote, “It’s wrong to draw too many parallels between a conflict of nations like World War II and conflicts of nation-building like Afghanistan and Iraq. Portraying the “war on terror” as an existential struggle like that against Nazism is ludicrous”. So this is why I am confused. What is it you are trying to say?

  2. Michael Peck says:

    If I sound ambiguous, it’s because the answers are ambiguous. The moral and political ambiguities of the “War on Terror” weren’t much different than World War II. I’m not a supporter of the “War on Terror”, but many of the same arguments that are used by the antiwar crowd today could and were used in the 1930s to block intervention against fascism. Poland in the 1930s was authoritarian and when the Germans dismembered Czechoslovakia, Poland took advantage and grabbed its share of territory. Were they deserving of Western support? Maybe Danzig did belong to Germany, which had been unjustly victimized by the Treaty of Versailles? Maybe the Anglo-French alliance had no right to butt in Central European affairs? How many innocents would die if the Great Powers went to war? Many believe that invading other nations is morally wrong.Yet most of us – outside of Pat Buchanan – know that going to stop Hitler was morally right.

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