Monday, August 4, 2008

The Fuss over the Good War

Last week, National Review Online devoted its “Uncommon Knowledge” internet program to Patrick Buchanan’s recent tome, “Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War,” a work of revisionist history. The program has its moderator, Mr. Peter Robinson, and his panel of experts included Victor Davis Hanson and Christopher Hitchens, both of whom are authors of vicious reviews of Mr. Buchanan’s book.

Under the guise of a “debate,” the experts piled on Mr. Buchanan himself, and ridiculed his character and motivations. Ordinarily a debate features two viewpoints with a moderator. But NRO does not need that, because it might undermine the officially accepted view of history which reads something like this: Allies = saints and greatest liberators the world has seen. Nazi Germany = most dangerous threat to face the West in history.

So why dedicate this blog to a debate sponsored by a formerly conservative institution? My personal opinion is that National Review (and the rest of the neoconservatives) have a big stake in this interpretation of World War II. It was one of the reasons Mr. Buchanan wrote the book in the first place. This book serves to undermine World War II as the pedagogic tool for every geopolitical conflict since. Every meeting with a potential adversary is Munich in 1938. Every potential adversary is Adolf Hitler and everyone who opposes the latest thug is Winston Churchill. Why else would Colonel Kadafi be labeled the “African Hitler,” or Saddam Hussein as the “Arab Hitler,” or the latest Hitler, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

Any potential madman will do when a country desires to go to war. Neoconservative godfather Irving Kristol urged the United States to find an enemy to unite Americans (or at least Republicans) once the Cold War was over, even though one did not exist. That’s why Saddam Hussein was suddenly a world threat, beginning in 1990. The argument goes, if we don’t stand up to the latest thug, then it will be World War II again and there will be another Holocaust.

The Second World War was a unique event that only took place under certain circumstances, mainly the First World War and the vindictive Treaty of Versailles that marked its conclusion; it was one that left Germany bitter and more susceptible to falling in line behind a man like Adolf Hitler. If World War II teaches us anything, it’s that wars are rarely conclusive. If there had been no World War I, there would have been no World War II. If there had been no World War II, one that elevated Stalinist Russia to new heights of power and influence in Europe, there may not have been a Cold War. If President George H. W. Bush had not gone to Iraq in 1990, it is unlikely his son would have. If his son had not gone to Iraq in 2003, we would not be having this discussion about whether or not to bomb Iran. Does anyone really think that if we had not gotten involved in nation building in the Middle East that we would have to be dealing with Iran right now? One war leads to another.

As is well known, the Allies were victorious in the Second World War. Hitler and Germany were soundly defeated. Germany dropped bombs on civilians during the Battle of Britain. The Allies bombed civilians in Dresden as well. Is it okay for the good guys to bomb civilians while it’s a war crime if the bad guys do it? Thus is the problem of the good vs. evil approach to history, current events, and foreign policy.

This is the real reason that the World War II analogy is most distressing. It makes every adversary a potential Hitler who is bent on world domination (which, by the way, was not Hitler’s goal). It always makes their opponent the veritable good guy and doing whatever it takes to win is always excusable when it’s gone by the “good guys.” To paraphrase Hawkeye Pierce on “M*A*S*H”: It’s okay to be an American spy. Good guys can do anything rotten.

Believing that one’s country is the world’s savior will lead to its destruction. Many Republicans spew at Barack Obama because many people, possibly including the senator himself, believe he is this country’s savior. What is disconcerting is that far too many of the same Republicans believe that America’s military is the solution (i.e. the savior) for the rest of the world. It is a fairly common interpretation that America was needed in World War II to stop Hitler from pushing the continent around. How many people have heard, “Well, if it wasn’t for us, everyone in Europe would be speaking German today.” Bill O’Reilly said it ad nauseum in the days immediately preceding the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

This is where success in wars lead ultimately to one’s own destruction. It makes one believe they are invincible. The invasion of Iraq was to be, rather infamously, a cakewalk. To be fair, the actual invasion itself was a cakewalk, but five years of occupation have proven otherwise. While the American military may not lose an actual battle, it will eventually be defeated through sheer exhaustion. It’s not something unique to America and our military, but it is something that happens to every empire that overstays its welcome. Some notworthy examples: Napoleon’s occupation of Spain drained the French Empire of money, troops, and patience. Afghans bled the Soviets out of their country as they did to Alexander the Great millennia before. Americans should know as well as anyone how well we liked having the British quarter their troops on this continent.

This is where World War II haunts us. We always think we will play the role of victor and liberator and it blurs the minds of many in our country into thinking that whatever our country and military do are inherently good. It is time to view the 1940s conflict in its own context and return to a realistic view of our country’s capabilities and its role in the world. We are not the world's policeman and we are not the solution to everybody's problems. Like the friend who learns of a problem and then meddles, our continual and unsolicited intervention is not appreciated.

God save the Republic, but not the Empire.

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