Monday, August 05, 2013

War in History

Keith Lowe has reviewed three academic books exploring the experience of soldiers in the Second World War (on American GIs in France, Allied deserters and one based on the diaries of troops who fought in the Pacific war). He starts by insisting that the dominant view of the War is that it was a 'good war'.
Since that day, the vast majority of books, films and TV programmes about the war have perpetuated this fairy tale. In the US the second world war is still called “the Good War” and the men who fought it are known as “the greatest generation”. The Allies are portrayed as a “band of brothers” who fought their way fearlessly into the devil’s lair and lived to tell the tale. The Axis powers, by contrast, are defined by the atrocities they perpetrated: the Rape of Nanjing, the Myanmar railway, the Holocaust. Everyone else – Jews, prisoners of war, the French resistance, and so on – is given the role of the damsel in distress: violated, rescued, and ultimately grateful.
Here we have the mocking tone aimed at those beguiled by an illusion, whilst, despite some important disclaimers, preparing the ground for an exercise in moral equivalence. Of course this view is a travesty of reality and perhaps that is why it doesn't exist outside the realms of popular fiction and the deceptions of the political propagandist. Most of the topics examined have been subject to serious historical (and literary - Slaughterhouse Five and Catch 22 to name but two) reappraisal for many years. It is a classic straw man.

Lowe is quite clear that, "Serious historians have always been sceptical of such mythmaking" and "that No credible historian is ever likely to question the value of the central Allied aim to bring down the Nazi regime". These reservations are welcome, but his review still promotes the myth and invites us to conclude that the books are trying to say that 'they were really all as bad as each other'; a view that he only partly distances himself from.

I think that there are two reasons why we should not be caught in this trap of moral equivalence. The first is that the behaviour of some armies, regardless of private reservations, was qualitatively and quantitatively worse than that of others. Compare the "tsunami of male lust" launched by GIs in France with the mass rape of Germans by the Russian Army, for example. That is even before we get on to the issue of the level of participation of Nazi troops in the holocaust.

Secondly, Lowe quotes from Aaron Moore's study of the Pacific War as seen through the diaries of participants.
Likewise the idea that the Japanese had a monopoly on cruelty is also revealed as a myth. Moore recounts dozens of instances of American soldiers acting every bit as brutally as the Japanese, including hacking prisoners to death, beheading them, and keeping dried Japanese ears or fingers as gruesome mementoes of combat. As Moore baldly states: “in this regard Americans were no different than their counterparts in East Asia.” In fact, the legendary Japanese refusal to surrender was largely due to fear of torture by the Americans rather than out of any particular fanaticism.
This passage obscures a critical issue; whether such cruelties were the result of soldiers' personal response to the horrors of combat, or whether they were the systematic product of ideology and policy.

Ultimately, the review falls into a trap of its own making. War is not good. The experience of war brings out examples of abhorrent brutality, desperate fear, extraordinary courage, sadistic revenge and, at times, acts of breathtaking virtue, such as those who risked their lives to rescue Jews. But it is not good. This is not how we should be evaluating war. No, the critical issue is not whether a war was good, but whether it was necessary.

Historical examination of the actions and motivations of individual combatants make for compelling history. They delve into human behaviour under the most extreme conditions and they show what we can expect to occur in any war. But they do not tell us anything like as much about the necessity of a particular war. Ultimately, the macro consequences of what would flow from the victory of one side or another matter more for our judgement than the horrors implicit in the practice of war. Seen in this light, our picture of the Second World War as a necessary war remains undisturbed.


Shuggy said...

Monopoly on cruelty? Who argues this? No-one argues this. I used to read war comics as a child. Even they didn't argue that. Thanks for this Peter - excellent piece. Small point:

"the issue of the level of participation of Nazi troops in the holocaust."

Did you mean Wehrmacht troops?

Anton Deque said...

dyeepu 377"Ultimately, the macro consequences of what would flow from the victory of one side or another matter more for our judgement than the horrors implicit in the practice of war."

Well, that concludes this discussion rather neatly.