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.