Thursday, June 5, 2014


Note: this is a heavily edited version of a column that first appeared on Measure of Doubt five years ago.

 "War is Not the Answer" says a poster on a bulletin board where I work. Well, it depends on the question, doesn't it? The problem in the 1930s was not that peaceful negotiation failed, it was that peaceful negotiation was attempted for far too long. Negotiation is not possible when confronted with an ideology that regards peace only as a pause in the preparation for war, and war as the desired outcome of politics, an instrument 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 put it, "the supreme accomplishment of the first half of the 20th century." 

Seventy 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: Overlord. In the following ten weeks, they would utterly destroy two German field armies in the Battle of Normandy, decisively proving that the Nazis and their subsequent admirers were 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 greater than that of the dictatorships. While fighting in 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. 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.

All those who fought and died in that terrible war deserve to be remembered, but historians have to remember them for what they actually did. This October will mark the 70th anniversary of a large-scale prisoner uprising at Auschwitz-Birkenau, but no moral person will spend that day in somber commemoration of those Germans who gave their lives that the Holocaust go on. Their uniforms are not totems that protect them from moral scrutiny. Their sacrifice is rendered worthless by the hideousness of their cause. The fact that they may have thought they were in the right is of historical interest but morally irrelevant, because they were objectively wrong. If this raises uncomfortable questions about the commemoration of Allied soldiers who may also have been complicit in atrocities, so be it. Uncritical veneration belongs to the realm of evangelical religion, not history.  Some historians will reply that we cannot make moral judgments about the past in the first place. That being the case, I can only assume that such people are indifferent about the outcome of D-Day, and indeed about the whole Second World War. Axis victory or defeat, Holocaust or no, in fact every atrocity in the history of the world: all must be met with shrugging indifference. Who am I to judge? Just report what happened and move on: the historian as glorified clerical worker. But nobody really believes that, so their position is incoherent.

So it is with the position that "war is not the answer." War is a dreadful thing. But it is not always to be avoided nor at all costs, nor is it true that there are no winners in war or that nothing good ever comes from it. 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 choice; 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 were and are clearly better than the monstrous regimes they fought. Today, we are the healthiest, wealthiest, safest, and most culturally prosperous people in the history of the world, and in large measure because a previous generation had thrust upon them the dreadful duty to fight those who would have enslaved us all.

1 comment:

Alison Hunter said...

A documentarian friend of mine once made a film about pacifists, and the film interviewed a lot of people who identified themselves that way. Many of the pacifists who she interviewed who did not fight in the second world war are still struggling with guilt about their decision, and don't know if not participating in that fight was the correct moral decision. Great post.