I've been meaning to post a link to this article before it goes behind subscription in a week or two, What Have We Learned, If Anything? by Tony Judt New York Review of Books 05/01/08 issue. Memorial Day is an appropriate time for it. Judt writes:
What, then, is it that we have misplaced in our haste to put the twentieth century behind us? In the US, at least, we have forgotten the meaning of war. There is a reason for this. In much of continental Europe, Asia, and Africa the twentieth century was experienced as a cycle of wars. War in the last century signified invasion, occupation, displacement, deprivation, destruction, and mass murder. Countries that lost wars often lost population, territory, resources, security, and independence. But even those countries that emerged formally victorious had comparable experiences and usually remembered war much as the losers did. Italy after World War I, China after World War II, and France after both wars might be cases in point: all were "winners" and all were devastated. And then there are those countries that won a war but "lost the peace," squandering the opportunities afforded them by their victory. The Western Allies at Versailles and Israel in the decades following its June 1967 victory remain the most telling examples. (my emphasis)
The best way we can honor the memory of those who died in service of our country is to work to do away with war.
Part of that means de-mystifying the idolatry of the military and the worship of war, whether they come from our infallible generals or from militaristic politicians or from defense companies running TV ads about how much they care about our soldiers.
And, no, that in itself isn't a pacifist position. It's recognizing what war is about and what it costs those who make the sacrifices, as opposed to what the Halliburtons of the world gain by it.
Judt's article is a "think piece" that actually provokes thought, rather than just repeating comfortable phrases, as such articles too often do:
War was not just a catastrophe in its own right; it brought other horrors in its wake. World War I led to an unprecedented militarization of society, the worship of violence, and a cult of death that long outlasted the war itself and prepared the ground for the political disasters that followed. (my emphasis)
A cult at whose altar John McCain and Dick Cheney and just about every Republican in Congress still worship, it seems.
States and societies seized during and after World War II by Hitler or Stalin (or by both, in sequence) experienced not just occupation and exploitation but degradation and corrosion of the laws and norms of civil society. The very structures of civilized life - regulations, laws, teachers, policemen, judges - disappeared or else took on sinister significance: far from guaranteeing security, the state itself became the leading source of insecurity. Reciprocity and trust, whether in neighbors, colleagues, community, or leaders, collapsed. Behavior that would be aberrant in conventional circumstances - theft, dishonesty, dissemblance, indifference to the misfortune of others, and the opportunistic exploitation of their suffering - became not just normal but sometimes the only way to save your family and yourself. Dissent or opposition was stifled by universal fear.
War, in short, prompted behavior that would have been unthinkable as well as dysfunctional in peacetime. It is war, not racism or ethnic antagonism or religious fervor, that leads to atrocity. War—total war—has been the crucial antecedent condition for mass criminality in the modern era. The first primitive concentration camps were set up by the British during the Boer War of 1899–1902. Without World War I there would have been no Armenian genocide and it is highly unlikely that either communism or fascism would have seized hold of modern states. Without World War II there would have been no Holocaust. Absent the forcible involvement of Cambodia in the Vietnam War, we would never have heard of Pol Pot. As for the brutalizing effect of war on ordinary soldiers themselves, this of course has been copiously documented.
The whole article is well worth reading. But because it's soon going behind subscription, I'll quote a somewhat longer passage than I might otherwise, with comments:
The United States avoided almost all of that. Americans, perhaps alone in the world, experienced the twentieth century in a far more positive light. The US was not invaded. It did not lose vast numbers of citizens, or huge swathes of territory, as a result of occupation or dismemberment. Although humiliated in distant neocolonial wars (in Vietnam and now in Iraq), the US has never suffered the full consequences of defeat. Despite their ambivalence toward its recent undertakings, most Americans still feel that the wars their country has fought were mostly "good wars." The US was greatly enriched by its role in the two world wars and by their outcome, in which respect it has nothing in common with Britain, the only other major country to emerge unambiguously victorious from those struggles but at the cost of near bankruptcy and the loss of empire. And compared with other major twentieth-century combatants, the US lost relatively few soldiers in battle and suffered hardly any civilian casualties.
Norman Rockwell's "Armchair General": his successors don't appear quite so benign when they treat war as a high-school sports contest
The United States clearly lost a large number of soldiers in the Second World War. And the founding of the United Nations was very much an attempt to create a permanent structure of peace. But Judt's point is to look at why the lasting impression of the world wars affected European democracies in such a different way than they did the US in attitudes toward war. These collective generalizations are always tricky, and are always subject to various kinds of empirical verification. But one of the impressive things about Judt's article is that he's very careful in using those generalizations.
This contrast merits statistical emphasis. In World War I the US suffered slightly fewer than 120,000 combat deaths. For the UK, France, and Germany the figures are respectively 885,000, 1.4 million, and over 2 million. In World War II, when the US lost about 420,000 armed forces in combat, Japan lost 2.1 million, China 3.8 million, Germany 5.5 million, and the Soviet Union an estimated 10.7 million. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., records the deaths of 58,195 Americans over the course of a war lasting fifteen years: but the French army lost double that number in six weeks of fighting in May–June 1940. In the US Army's costliest engagement of the century - the Ardennes offensive of December 1944–January 1945 (the "Battle of the Bulge") - 19,300 American soldiers were killed. In the first twenty-four hours of the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916), the British army lost more than 20,000 dead. At the Battle of Stalingrad, the Red Army lost 750,000 men and the Wehrmacht almost as many.
The combat and non-combat losses he cites may not be entirely consistent. I believe the 420,000 figure for the US would also include those technically classified as non-combat deaths, even though most of the US dead were soldiers. A figure of 20 million killed in the Soviet Union is much more common, which includes civilians. The civilian figure he cites next would put the USSR's losses at over 22 million, which is certainly credible.
With the exception of the generation of men who fought in World War II, the United States thus has no modern memory of combat or loss remotely comparable to that of the armed forces of other countries. But it is civilian casualties that leave the most enduring mark on national memory and here the contrast is piquant indeed. In World War II alone the British suffered 67,000 civilian dead. In continental Europe, France lost 270,000 civilians. Yugoslavia recorded over half a million civilian deaths, Germany 1.8 million, Poland 5.5 million, and the Soviet Union an estimated 11.4 million. These aggregate figures include some 5.8 million Jewish dead. Further afield, in China, the death count exceeded 16 million. American civilian losses (excluding the merchant navy) in both world wars amounted to less than 2,000 dead.
He's not drawing some kind of moral distinction based on the nationality of the civilian dead. He's talking about how it impacted the public's view of what war means.
As a consequence, the United States today is the only advanced democracy where public figures glorify and exalt the military, a sentiment familiar in Europe before 1945 but quite unknown today. Politicians in the US surround themselves with the symbols and trappings of armed prowess; even in 2008 American commentators excoriate allies that hesitate to engage in armed conflict. I believe it is this contrasting recollection of war and its impact, rather than any structural difference between the US and otherwise comparable countries, which accounts for their dissimilar responses to international challenges today. Indeed, the complacent neoconservative claim that war and conflict are things Americans understand - in contrast to naive Europeans with their pacifistic fantasies - seems to me exactly wrong: it is Europeans (along with Asians and Africans) who understand war all too well. Most Americans have been fortunate enough to live in blissful ignorance of its true significance.
That same contrast may account for the distinctive quality of much American writing on the cold war and its outcome. In European accounts of the fall of communism, from both sides of the former Iron Curtain, the dominant sentiment is one of relief at the closing of a long, unhappy chapter. Here in the US, however, the story is typically recorded in a triumphalist key. And why not? For many American commentators and policymakers the message of the twentieth century is that war works. Hence the widespread enthusiasm for our war on Iraq in 2003 (despite strong opposition to it in most other countries). For Washington, war remains an option - on that occasion the first option. For the rest of the developed world it has become a last resort.
His empiricism failed him at least in part on the Iraq War. Up until shortly before the intervention, a majority of Americans were telling pollsters that they opposed a war against Iraq without UN sanction. War fever based on our government's propaganda and the staggering, historic failure of the Establishment media got stronger just before the war. Approval ratings were very high once it started. But that's just basic anthropology. Every war is popular during the first 30 days. What's striking about public opinion on the Iraq War is how quickly in turned to opposition in comparison with opinion on the Vietnam War four decades before.