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.

Memorial Day Reflections

On Memorial Day it is good and right to remember those who served in our armed forces and sacrificed on behalf of our country. As I watch some of the non-stop war movies that parade across the television screens, I appreciate the sacrifices made, the horrors suffered, and the burdens borne. Of course, not everyone who served was “a hero”; some, over the course of our nation’s history, have committed horrible crimes in the name of our country or while in uniform.

I suggest that on Memorial Day, in addition to honoring those who served, we should turn ourselves to a wider reflection, to reflect on where we, as a nation, have been and where we might be headed. Our story is not without blemish, but if it is correct that “the truth shall set you free”, then we must face the good and the bad and the indifferent in our history. This is not always easy or pleasant. Some recent reading has brought all of this to mind. In the NYT yesterday, a review article by Adam Kirsch entitled “Is World War II Still the Good War?” The “good war”—an oxymoron if there ever was one—and yet not all wars are equal in their moral repugnance and some are justified. Kirsch rightly points out some of the moral failings of the Allied Powers, such as the fire-bombing of German (and Japanese) cities, which rightly raises the issue of war crimes. In the end, neither Kirsch nor I nor many of the authors of the books that he discusses, believe that one finds any equivalency between the evils of Hitler’s Nazi Germany and the Allied Powers. Even the question of allies raises moral clouds, such as Hitler’s one-time ally and then ours, Stalin, who perhaps can rival and arguably even excel Hitler in evil, yet we danced with him in order to defeat Hitler. These are not easy questions, and Kirsch addresses them forthrightly but not naively.

I also listened to a portion of Simon Schama’s The American Future: A History. This morning I listened to the story of the treatment of the Cherokee Nation by Andrew Jackson, Schama describes Jackson’s actions as a terrible low in American political morality. Congress (including Davey Crockett) almost defeated Jackson’s theft and ethnic cleansing (for this is what it was, and often treatment of American Indians became genocide). Yet, it happened. Yes, we must remember this, too. Not to beat ourselves up with useless guilt, but to understand how we got there and to consider our own actions and how they may compare to those of our ancestors, heroic, ordinary, and shameful.