Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Adam Kirsch on Morality in the Histories of WWII

A quote worth repeating from the article cited in my previous post. He expresses a perspective that I agree with.

[T]he patriotism, sacrifice and bravery we read about in a book like “Band of Brothers” cannot be nullified by knowing more about the war in which they flourished. Indeed, the best of the new World War II histories can be seen as attempts to give us, in the year 2011, a more authentic and complete sense of what the war was actually like to those fighting it.

After all, the present is always lived in ambiguity. To those who fought World War II, it was plain enough that Allied bombs were killing huge numbers of German civilians, that Churchill was fighting to preserve imperialism as well as democracy, and that the bulk of the dying in Europe was being done by the Red Army at the service of Stalin. It is only in retrospect that we begin to simplify experience into myth — because we need stories to live by, because we want to honor our ancestors and our country instead of doubting them. In this way, a necessary but terrible war is simplified into a “good war,” and we start to feel shy or guilty at any reminder of the moral compromises and outright betrayals that are inseparable from every combat.

The best history writing reverses this process, restoring complexity to our sense of the past. Indeed, its most important lesson may be that the awareness of ambiguity must not lead to detachment and paralysis — or to pacifism and isolationism, as Nicholson Baker and Pat Buchanan would have it. On the contrary, the more we learn about the history of World War II, the stronger the case becomes that it was the irresolution and military weakness of the democracies that allowed Nazi Germany to provoke a world war, with all the ensuing horrors and moral compromises that these recent books expose. The fact that we can still be instructed by the war, that we are still proud of our forefathers’ virtues and pained by their sufferings and sins, is the best proof that World War II is still living history — just as the Civil War is still alive, long after the last veteran was laid to rest.

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