Monday, May 31, 2010

No Good War

Christopher Coker's review of Michael Burleigh's Moral Combat: A History of World War II is a reminder, on this day when we Americans honor the members of our armed forces for their sacrifices, and remember those who gave the last full measure of devotion, that even the most necessary conflict, precisely because of its inherently immoral nature, drags all of us, ally and foe alike, in to the muck and mire of our worst human attributes. The willingness to kill, the necessity to kill, the growing emotional distance necessitated by the ever-present reality of death, an insouciance to human life - these are the hallmarks of war.

It is called "The Good War" in the US because it united us as nothing has, before or since. It rescued the country from the Great Depression. We fought a two-front war, with ever-growing confidence and strength, against the two mightiest war-machines ever. While the defeat of Nazi Germany lies largely with the Russians and the Red Army, the defeat of the Japanese, closing the ring (to use Churchill's title of part of his WWII memoirs), lies almost solely with United States.

Yet, we did so morally compromised ourselves. Our armed forces were segregated. Even Japanese Americans, serving under the taint of questionable loyalties, had to have their own units. At home, Japanese-Americans whose sole crime was their national origin, or that of their parents, were locked up in concentration camps. African-American troops, having served bravely, were subjected to horrific treatment upon returning home. American leftists, being vindicated in their clarion call for defense against fascism, were also suspected for their alleged ties to that other totalitarian nightmare, our ally the Soviet Union. Refugees from Soviet satellite states were often not allowed to serve in the American armed forces.

The lesson the four and a half years of the First World War - that the end result of modern warfare is nothing more or less than mass slaughter, leaving all with blood on their hands - was forgotten. While it is easy enough for us to consider our own moral superiority, especially if one considers the political nightmare of a Europe dominated by the Nazis and a Pacific Rim dominated by a militarized Japan, we should never forget that, we, too, emerged from the war with burden of having killed tens of thousands of civilians from the air, using both conventional and atomic weapons. To justify these deaths by the argument that they saved other lives is already to succumb to the slipshod moral calculus of the bureaucratic mind.

On this Memorial Day, it is nice to read a reminder that, in fact, there is no "good war". No matter how necessary a war may be, it creates moral monsters of all involved.

Virtual Tin Cup

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