McNamara and America's nostalgia for 70 million deaths, part II

I was reading the exchange in the comment section over on Allison Kilkenny’s page, where she’s now gone about eight rounds with her fellow T/S contributor Michael Peck. The spark of the debate: the death of Robert “Sweet Pea” McNamara, and his quote in the Errol Morris documentary “Fog of War” (a quote prominently placed in the NYT obit, which I wrote about yesterday.)  The trouble started when Kilkenny wrote that McNamara should not only be considered a war criminal for his role in Vietnam, but also for his planning of the Tokyo firebombings. That led Peck to ask: how do you fight the Imperial Japs and the Nazi Huns if you’re not prepared to kill loads of civilians?

I decided to weigh in with a few ramblings of my own, made some sweeping claims about the nature of mankind(hypocrisy is required for civilizations to function; there are no such things as civilians anymore), and then waded into territory of bongish late night philosophy and international law that reminded me I should probably get a Masters degree one of these days.

But Kilkenny versus Peck highlights one of the biggest obstacles anti-war(or pro-peace advocates) face. Actually, it’s an argument that any American who questions waging armed conflict–no matter the conflict–ends up hearing.

It goes something like this: You’re against Iraq? You think we should tone it down in Afghanistan? You must be some kind of pacifist? Tell me, Monsieur Chamberlain, how would you stop Hitler then? (Michael Peck isn’t really doing exactly that here. In fact, his assessment of McNamara is pretty similar to Kilkenny’s. They also seem to agree that  Iraq/Afghanistan are fairly foolish to borderline insane enterprises. But my straw man does exist.)

The disagreement is centered around WWII. Kilkenny represents the Zinn/Chomsky/Fussell/Buchanan Camp. This is a minority view, certainly, and it doesn’t get much play outside of conservative and far left circles.(Fussell fits uncomfortably in this political classification, but after reading The Boy’s Crusade, it’s hard to think of him as anything but a Zinn ally.) Peck, in his role as devil’s advocate, is presenting  a view of the war that is closer to how we now remember it as culture–that it was necessary and we did what needed to be done because of the enemies we faced. (He has an important caveat that it isn’t usually included in the standard American view, though; that is, the Allies did some pretty horrible things, too.)

I can see this post sprawling out, so I’ll get to my point. I’m sympathetic to the Zinn school. I think the Greatest Generation mythology that’s taken hold in recent years, and the festishization of World War Two, is a rhetorical trump card that is played too freely when discussing the necessity of going to war. World War II should not firstly be remembered as a triumph of the American Spirit; it should be seen as the most horrible man-made tragedy we’ve yet produced, a conflict that left 50 to 70 million dead.

This nostalgic love for the Great Patriotic War wasn’t always that widely held: contemporary WWII writers saw it as an abomination–read what James Jones and Norman Mailer had to say about it, or the fact that the greatest anti-war classic, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, is about the insaneness of WWII. That being said, I don’t have a good one or two sentence answer to explain how we could have got around fighting it in a way that seems either convincing, or moral. Either did the man who started this debate, Robert McNamara.

The best I can come up with is this.

There are two kinds of wars. Wars of tragic neccesity, and wars of unnecessary tragedy.  WWII is about the only one I can think of that falls into the former category; almost every other war we’ve been involved in seems to fit firmly in the latter. Since the atom bomb, we’ve come up with all sorts of ways to still wage war without ever going as far as we did towards total annhilation from 1939 to 1945. These tippy toe wars have been a mistake, I think, from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq. We’ve convinced oursleves that the best way to stop the Ultimate War III is to keep fighting little wars to prevent it. We fought Korea and Vietnam with an eye to avoiding a deadly nuclear confrontation with Russia and now we’re fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan to avoid a deadly nuclear confrontation with Islamic terrorists. It has established a dangerous pattern. It encourages our leaders to think that war is something that can be tamed, contained, and waged in a way that seems lawful and just, when really, war is rarely any of those things.

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About michaelhastings

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6 Responses to McNamara and America's nostalgia for 70 million deaths, part II

  1. Brian In NYC says:

    “There are two kinds of wars. Wars of tragic neccesity, and wars of unnecessary tragedy. WWII is about the only one I can think of that falls into the former category; almost every other war we’ve been involved in seems to fit firmly in the latter.”

    What about the Civil War?

  2. Brian In NYC says:

    Michael I’ve read through this piece twice and what I’m having trouble understanding is the either/or attitude about your piece. First there is the title. I don’t think people wax nostalgic for the horrific death toll incurred during WWII. The nostalgia for the WWII period to my way of thinking is driven by the sense of national unity and willingness to sacrifice, something not often seen in our national history.

    Also Michael I find the following line of yours to be highly offensive:

    “I think the Greatest Generation mythology that’s taken hold in recent years, and the festishization of World War Two”

    My father was a medic in the war, was part of the D Day invasion and was a Jew. He enlisted the day after he graduated from high school. He believed what he was doing was the right thing to do. The pain of what he saw stayed with him his entire life and despite enduring horrors I’m not sure I could, he returned home and made a good and honorable life for himself. I know he would be very offended to have honoring his service and what he accomplished with his life seen as a fetishistic spin on war.

    Frankly I think the one who is engaging in the “festishization” (I don’t think that’s an actual word) of war around here is you and probably making a decent living at in the process.

    • Michael Hastings says:

      Hi Brian, traveling last couple days. Main point: we act like WWII is some huge victory for mankind when it’s exactly the opposite. We also tend to forget that the big reason the Nazis got beat was because of the Russians. Stalin then turned around and killed millions more of his own people after the war, an act of evil that one could argue rivals the Holocaust but is often overlooked when discussing the war.

      • Brian In NYC says:

        “We also tend to forget that the big reason the Nazis got beat was because of the Russians. Stalin then turned around and killed millions more of his own people after the war, an act of evil that one could argue rivals the Holocaust but is often overlooked when discussing the war.”

        Well I don’t know of anyone when having a serious discussion of the war neglects the USSR’s contribution to the victory or the horrific suffering of the Russian people. Stalin’s actions after the war isn’t really the issue here, a separate matter entirely. Seems to me you’re looking to throw out the baby with the bathwater because history isn’t being retold in accordance with your take on things. Seems to me you should be able to find a way of honoring the sacrifices made by the Russian people (or for that matter the people of China and Indochina) without minimizing the sacrifices made by the Americans of the era. You also seem to to entirely negate the fact that WWII was not a war of our making but was a war brought to us.

        And sorry but by any standard the destruction of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was a great victory for mankind. Maybe for argument’s sake you should try imagine a world in which the US didn’t enter the world. Try to imagine a world today where Nazi Germany is the primary power in Europe and Imperial Japan is the primary power in Asia.

  3. Michael Hastings says:

    Brian, you’re wrong about how WWII is remembered and discussed here–the Russians are a footnote. (And the Americans are a foot note in popular Russian history; they think they won the war single handedly, too.) It’s all Band of Brothers and Greatest Generation stuff. And your writing “imagine a world” run by Nazis and Japanese is exactly the point I’m getting at in the post. WWII is used as the prime example of why it’s can be morally redemptive to get into situations where we’re killing millions of each other. I don’t think that’s true. War, to quote WWII correspondent Ernie Pyle, can be summed up in the simple line “Fuck my shit.”

    And it’s fantasy to believe that we got into WWII to save the Jews. (One could also argue if our goal was to save the Jews, we did a pretty poor job of it–the Nazis managed to kill 6 million of them.)

    • Brian In NYC says:

      First I didn’t say in my post that we entered WWII to save the Jews, we entered WWII because the Japanese attacked us and Germany declared war on us. You seem to forget that had it been up to FDR we would have entered the war far earlier than we did. Sorry Michael I think you’re picking and choosing history to back up your premise. Of course war is ugly, no one with any sense of decency could think otherwise, but you’re painting this argument with far too broad a stroke. I don’t see how honoring the sacrifices of that American generation in any way detracts from the sacrifices of the Soviets and I think Tom Brokaw, Stephen Ambrose, and Steven Spielberg would be surprised at your take.

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