Good War, Bad War

Is the post-9/11 war on terrorism a just war, as most Americans view World War II, or, like Vietnam, is it a dangerous quagmire fraught with ambiguities and potential failure?

October 14, 2007|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Reporter

Sept. 11, 2001, hangs over the American political scene like one of those mirrored disco balls, shining lights in every direction, its ultimate message hard to discern. No candidate can hope to be elected president without trying to focus one of those beams, finding a meaning to this day of tragedy that can make it part of a compelling narrative of American story.

But what part of the story should it be? A day that has changed everything, that means the United States' relationship to the rest of the world is forever altered? An aberrant event that, despite its huge cost in blood and dollars, should not dominate foreign and domestic policy? Something in between? Something else entirely?

That foundation for any such story will be the two iconic views of warfare that have dominated American political and social life for the last six decades. One comes from World War II. The other from Vietnam.

One is a triumphal story of good defeating evil. The other is a cautionary tale of avoiding the quagmire. Both provide compelling narratives for the post-Sept. 11 world that politicians will be drawing on as they tell their stories on the campaign trail.

As documentarian Ken Burns has so artfully reminded the country recently with his PBS series The War, World War II was special. For Americans, it began with an attack on unsuspecting soldiers and sailors. It ended with revelations of atrocities beyond anyone's imagination.

There was no doubt that it had to be fought. And there was absolutely no doubt that the United States was on the side of good and its opponents on the side of evil.

That might not have been that clear at the time, but it is now. "The vision of World War II as good vs. evil benefits from the collective memory," says Shawn Parry-Giles, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park. "If you go back to the time period, it is not that clear-cut. Looking backward it is easy to have amnesia, to forget about the parts that were so complicated and complex."

The good-vs.-evil paradigm of World War II provided such a compelling narrative that it dominated the United States' approach to war, certainly for the next 25 years, and, it could be argued, up until today. This despite the fact that there might not have been another war in recorded history where that was as clear. That World War II is a historical outlier is rarely acknowledged.

Demonizing the enemy is as much a part of warfare as tactics and weapons. But traditionally, this was an ethnically based affair. The Germans wanted to beat up on the French, well, because they were French. No other reason was necessary. Certainly, the United States has invoked such feelings throughout its history.

"I think that we have had a more dramatic tendency than most countries to describe our enemies as evil, and have for a long time - certainly the yellow journalism of the Hearst papers did this in 1898, and both sides in the Civil War, and for a long time before that as well," says Ted Wid- mer, a historian who directs the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

In World War I, the Germans were painted as the brutal violators of Belgium, though most of the propaganda tales turned out not to be true. That led to skepticism about similar claims at the start of World War II. It was easier to demonize the Japanese, as it always has been for those not of European ancestry, including, to some extent, those Americans of Japanese ancestry interned for the duration of the conflict.

But the United States is, at its base, a nation founded not on ethnicity but on ideas. What gives the World War II paradigm its power is that the evil was in the form of an ideology - Nazism - not an ethnicity.

Though we visited incredible death and destruction on the civilian populations of Germany and Japan, soon enough the message was that the Germans and Japanese were our friends - our enemies were the Nazis and militarists who had led them astray. The war was thus a fight on our turf, not between people, but between ideas.

Never was that more apparent than in 1985 when President Ronald Reagan visited the German military cemetery in Bitburg that included graves of members of the Hitler's elite SS. Reagan said that day, "We can mourn the German war dead today as human beings, crushed by a vicious ideology." The soldiers buried in that cemetery, many of whom had tried their best to kill Americans, some of whom had certainly persecuted and perhaps killed Jews, were not the enemies, but fellow victims of ideology.

"The moral clarity of World War II, while nice at the time, was unhelpful in the long run because it led us to the comfortable but inaccurate thought that most wars have a similar moral clarity," Widmer says.

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