Saturday, June 6, 2009


" War is Not the Answer" states a small poster on a bulletin board where I work. Well, it depends upon the question, doesn't it? The failure of the 1930s was not a failure to settle Europe's troubles through peaceful negotiations, it was that peaceful negotiations were attempted for far too long. Negotiation is not possible when confronted with an ideology that regards peace only as an interval during which one prepares for war, and war as a natural state for imposing "racial purity" on a vast scale. Nazism could not be appeased, contained, or co-existed with. It could only be destroyed, and its destruction was, as the late Stephen Ambrose once observed, "the supreme accomplishment of the first half of the 20th century." Today, adolescents can re-create that cure in hyper-realistic, graphically-intense video games, digitally reliving for their amusement the horrors that a former generation actually experienced. Some games even allow them to play the other side, as if the two sides were or ever could be morally equivalent.

As an historian, I meet all sorts of history buffs whose interest is confined to years 1939-1945. A quick look at the history section in any bookstore or at the History Channel's lineup of programming will confirm that the public seems to have an insatiable interest in the Second World War, despite the annual scolding we receive from that cadre of fusty antediluvians at the Dominion Institute. However, as an historian one will, from time to time, meet history buffs who will tell you , often in a slightly conspiratorial tone of voice: "You know, Hitler had a lot of good ideas. He just went too far." My former response to this sort of thing was to take a sharp step in the opposite direction. Now I prefer a policy of engagement. "And what," I usually ask, "do you consider 'too far'? You were with them at the book burning phase, but drew the line at beating Jews? Or perhaps they had you at beating Jews but you jumped ship when involuntary euthanasia began?" The fact is, of course, that the regime was a lunatic asylum from the outset, and my advice is to avoid people who are willing to flirt with the idea that a racist, totalitarian, single-party state, organized for endless war, may have something going for it.

Sixty-five years ago today, a combined Anglo-Canadian-American force fought its way, inch by bloody inch, up the beaches of Normandy in what was probably the single most complex military operation in history. Over the next six weeks, they would utterly destroy two German armies in the Battle of Normandy, decisively proving that the Nazis (and their subsequent admirers) were utterly wrong to believe that totalitarian societies are better at war than democracies. Sufficiently aroused, the power of free people and capitalist economies to wage war proved to be far beyond that of the dictatorships. While fighting the Battle of Normandy, the Allies simultaneously conducted vast campaigns on land, sea, and air on many fronts across two major theatres of war, while all the while supplying — crucially, as we now know — logistical support to the Red Army through the auspices of the Lend-Lease program. As the civilians of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were to learn, the fury of democratic societies, aroused to what was for them the very unnatural state of war, was both awesome and terrible to behold. Allied bombers had reduced nearly every major Germany city to rubble and ash before the Red Army — carried, incidentally, on American trucks — set foot on Germany soil, while the Japanese were to suffer the immolation of dozens of their towns and cities, acts of vengeance culminating in the atomic incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

War is a dreadful thing. But it is not, as some on left the say, to be avoided at all costs, nor is it true that there are no winners in war. Pacifism is morally defensible only when it is a choice you make for yourself. The pacifist who allows himself to be beaten has made one kind of moral decision; if he allows someone else to be beaten, he has made another one entirely. Sometimes we must fight. The destruction of National Socialism and of Japanese militarism was necessary for the safety and survival of free societies throughout the world. For all their faults and foibles — and these are, as we all know, numerous — the liberal democracies do not murder or enslave their own citizens. We are, as I have said, the healthiest, wealthiest, safest, and most culturally prosperous people in the history of the world, and in large measure because our grandparents had thrust upon them the dreadful duty to fight those who would have enslaved us all.

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