To the editors:
Lee Sandlin’s meditations on World War II provoked many thoughts and ideas. [“Losing the War,” March 7 and 14]
Last summer I mentioned to a teenage colleague that my parents had immigrated to the U.S. because of World War II. He said, “Oh yeah. The Holocaust. Like Schindler’s List.” The idea that my parents were noncommunist gentiles fleeing Stalin rather than Jews fleeing Hitler never entered his head.
Insofar as I think I understand the point of Mr. Sandlin’s article–that America has lost its collective memory of the Second World War, and with it some valuable lessons–I agree with him. However, I disagree with some of his factual assertions, and I dispute which lessons we should retain.
I disagree with Mr. Sandlin when he says conventional war is a thing of the past. Fifty years of non-superpower wars–Korea, Israel v. Arabs, Iraq v. Iran, Angola, Eritrea, Yugoslavia–have been fought with World War I and II weapons: rifles, shovels, barbed wire, machine guns, muscle, mines; sometimes with air cover, tanks, and artillery, sometimes not. Indeed, the widest-used weapon in Rwanda was the machete.
Mr. Sandlin mentions the SS as different from the German army but fails to define them. The SS were at first the security guards and later the private army of the Nazi party. In their origins they were remarkably similar to today’s radical militias, and I think this is a profound cautionary lesson.
Nazi Germany was a bureaucratic mess even within its army. As Len Deighton points out in his excellent histories of the prewar and early war years, Germany’s military-industrial complex was rife with corruption, insider dealings, kickbacks, and private scandal. Only accidentally did it produce military efficiency. Germany might have had several superweapons–notably the jet fighter and the selective-fire assault rifle–by 1943 but for meddling by Nazi party officals, for which civilization should be grateful.
Mr. Sandlin quotes at length from the brilliant John Keegan but fails to mention his most important works: The Face of Battle, The Mask of Command (for its portrait of Hitler), and A History of Warfare. These are the supreme efforts of a civilian trying to make warfare comprehensible to other civilians.
Of course you had to be there to know war, but Sandlin misses that we might be able to imagine some of it, and understand some of it. This is why we have art, literature, history, and poetry, including Mr. Keegan.
It is old hat that combat is awful. We know that from Homer and The Red Badge of Courage. Mr. Sandlin misses the question of when combat is a necessary evil. Some sociopaths must be beaten into the ground. Some bank robbers must be shot dead. Some armies must be fought into surrender. The question for anybody with a left viewpoint (pacifist, antimilitary) is: What is worth fighting and dying for? George Orwell said: “Totalitarian governments can stand moral force until the cows come home; it is physical force they fear.” World War I produced legions of justified pacifists; World War II proved that sometimes war is a necessity.
Mr. Sandlin writes well about certain important experiences and attitudes of the war, but I think he flubbed the political and social origins. He starts, “To the extent the war had an intelligible cause…” and blathers on about World War I. Yet the causes of the war are distilled in an earlier paragraph of his: “Hitler seemed to get more pleasure out of architectural tours of his conquered territories than he did from all their looted wealth.” (Italics mine.)
World War II was a war made by thieves, disguised (sometimes even to themselves) as patriots and idealists, who stole first their own countries, and then territory, treasure, and labor from their neighbors; and then exacerbated these thefts with racism and genocide.
Specifically, in the 1920s, there arose totalitarian movements in Japan, Italy, Germany, and Spain. These movements were undemocratic, nationalist, they were promilitary (Franco was a general, Hitler was a veteran, Japan’s totalitarians were the military), they were imperialistic, and they were racist. In Europe they were profoundly anticommunist, anti-labor union, and oddly, antiabortion. (Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini all had diplomatic ties with the Roman Catholic church.) They were all tolerated and sometimes actively aided by some conservative and business interests in the democratic world. Hitler was aided and tolerated by his fellow dictator Stalin. Each of these movements took control of their respective governments by means of assassination, coercion, propaganda, and, in Spain, by open revolt. All except the Spaniards embarked on wars of imperial conquest. All practiced what Keegan would call tribalism: the Japanese despised the Chinese and slaughtered them; the Nazis, in the service of ideology, did worse. They made alliances of convenience with each other, and only after they attacked the last great democratic power were they decisively resisted and beaten.
Len Deighton’s 1965 novel Funeral in Berlin portrays the following: Four spies–one each from the U.S., the U.S.S.R., Britain, and Czechoslovakia–are drinking behind the Iron Curtain. The Czech, trying to find common ground, toasts, “Death to the fascists!” The American, quite drunk, makes a long speech decrying the idea of fascism as an external entity, and modifies the toast to, “Death to the fascists–in Washington, London, Moscow, and Prague.”
A tolerance for the fascist mentality brought us World War II. We should watch constantly for the symptoms. We should demand the same from our government; the U.S. has wasted treasure, goodwill, and lives in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile, and Grenada; what if the military dictators of Guatemala, Burma, or Argentina had developed an industrial base and imperial ambitions? The U.S. tolerance for Saddam Hussein gave us the very costly and probably not efficacious gulf war.
The Reader, as one of our few living left-wing journals, has a duty to remind us of those lessons. Mr. Sandlin, meanwhile, though I respectfully thank him for his efforts and his intentions, should think more clearly.