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65 Years Later: The Lessons of World War II

The Editorial Board
August 16, 2010

An Editorial

Sixty-five years after the defeat of fascism, what have we learned?

May 8th marked the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, and August 14th marked its end in Asia. War is a fearsome, terrible enterprise, committed to destruction and killing, and World War II was no exception: some 27 million people in the USSR, some 10 million Chinese, and millions more across Europe and Asia lost their lives in the war — the great majority of them civilians. Nearly half of all the Jews alive at the time were brutally murdered, their Ashkenazic civilization and its Yiddish language nearly completely destroyed.

For the U.S. and its European allies, World War II was both necessary and justified, forced by the military aggressions of Japan and the Axis powers, who represented the greatest threat to peaceful development of the entire world that had ever appeared in recorded history. Although a tiny minority believe that war is never necessary or justified (and we sympathize with their pacifism, given the fact that the vast majority of wars are neither), our magazine’s stance has generally more resembled a stringent version of the Obama Administration’s recent formal enunciation of U.S. strategy: “While the use of force is sometimes necessary, we will exhaust other options before war . . . and carefully weigh the costs and risks of action against the costs and risks of inaction.” We consider it to be our progressive political mandate to ensure that such standards are resolutely enforced — which has certainly not been the case either in Iraq or Afghanistan.

It may seem odd to ask what lessons were learned from World War II when its simplest and worthy goal was averting the destruction of our way of life (and, for Jews, complete physical destruction). Yet it is morally vital to evaluate both the causes and outcomes of such a conflagration, in order to direct our societies towards a more peaceful future. In fact, quite a few beneficial developments emerged from the war, at least in part because of lessons learned. Racist attitudes and actions, for example, which reached a horrendous peak with the disgusting Aryan-supremacist and anti-Semitic doctrines of the Nazis, receded markedly after World War II — a recession that played a role in, and was sped up by, decolonization, the American civil rights movement, and the South African anti-apartheid movement. In addition, the worldwide depression of the 1930s was ended by the war and an era of unparalleled prosperity developed in America and a rebuilt Europe. Israel was founded, providing a long-hoped-for refuge for Jews and a center for Jewish culture. And the formation of the United Nations offered the prospect of achieving world peace and economic development. Although the UN has been disappointingly ineffective, the “world government” ideal that it represents is more vital than ever in our era of climate change, multinational corporate power, and dysfunctional states. The UN therefore deserves our cultivation, not our scorn, and politicians who use the UN as a whipping boy should be held accountable.

Unfortunately, the horrors of World War II did not cool the passion for war. The U.S. alone has been involved in five major wars (Korea, Vietnam, Iraq twice, and Afghanistan) and three minor wars (Grenada, Panama, and Kosovo) since 1945, as well as numerous “military operations” and “proxy” wars — none of them necessary or justified for the defense of our country, and all of them damaging to our national fortunes. Today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost $1 trillion, according to the National Priorities Project. That’s enough to feed every American, Iraqi, and Afghan for years — or to pay the salaries of two million teachers for a decade — or to give $1,000 to every child in the world who lives in poverty — or to provide sanitation and clean drinking water everywhere on Earth. Woe to the world that spends nearly $1.5 trillion on weaponry every year (according the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) and sets itself firmly on the path to hell instead of to paradise.

Why do we choose this path, over and over? The answer requires a rigorous analysis of the short but deceptive word “we.” There is no unitary “we” in the United States; the “we” who plan, ordain, and wage wars are not the same “we” who fight wars and suffer from them physically, emotionally, and economically. Rich and powerful old men ordain our wars, and poor and powerless young men and women fight them. Those who fight, moreover, are almost never the children or grandchildren of the rich and powerful old men. The instigators of war — whose hands, in many cases, have the greasy feel and smell of oil — are thus insulated from the consequences of what they have instigated, which makes it easy for them to go on instigating.

So what can men and women of good will and progressive outlook do about all this? First, we must constantly teach about the real causes of war and resist the propaganda for, and glamorization of, war. There is nothing glamorous about war, even when it is absolutely necessary; it is a tragedy, not something to be proud of. We must understand this, and then pursue our lifelong mission to teach it to the population at large.

New York Congressman Charles Rangel has also pointed out that our having a professional standing army makes war easy to pursue without much soul-searching or political consequence. All our leaders have to do is to figuratively press a button and the enormous military machine clanks into action. Rangel has suggested that reestablishing a citizen army by reinstituting a military draft — with suitable measures to prevent evasive deferments for the children of the rich and powerful — would be a powerful corrective. A draft would eliminate the insulation of the ruling class from the consequences of war to themselves and their families, thereby diminishing the likelihood that they would initiate wars. More importantly, it would increase the likelihood of public resistance to the marching orders, as it did during the Vietnam War. Though the idea may sound strange and even counter-intuitive to progressive ears, it is worthy of serious consideration.