Taps for the Good War Myth?

Guest post by Michael C. C. Adams

On May 8, seventy years ago, the Allies accepted the unconditional surrender of Germany (Victory in Europe or VE Day), followed on September 2 by the surrender of our Pacific opponent (Victory over Japan or VJ Day). As we once again ring down the curtain on our commemoration of World War II, it is worth asking whether the Good War myth, spawned by the conflict, is now in eclipse?

The total victories in WWII were an enormous accomplishment, due in good measure to U.S. contributions in manpower, industrial production, and financial strength. There was much to be proud of. America was the only nation to emerge from the war more prosperous and powerful at a relatively modest cost. But, over time, this achievement was magnified into “The Good War.” From the 1960s on, America’s economic world dominance declined and military victories were harder to achieve, with stalemate in Korea and failure in Vietnam. Domestically, there were major challenges to race and gender discrimination. Many Americans, particularly adult white males, reacted by turning to the 1940s as a golden age. Back then, they said, Americans were united, without ethnic or sexual divides, and everyone knew what they fought for and put shoulders to the wheel. The boys were happy warriors.

Combat in WWII was traumatizing.  Romanticizing it misled those who engineered the conventional wars of the 21st century.

“The Anguish of Combat,” drawing by Howard Brodie. Combat in WWII was traumatizing. Romanticizing it misled those who engineered the conventional wars of the 21st century.

None of this was fully accurate. The myth crested in the 1990s when prominent military historian Stephen E. Ambrose wrote that America saved the world for democracy, and argued that D-Day was the key battle. Ambrose at times implied that the U.S. virtually alone forged victory. He wrote sentimentally of the white male rifle squad of WWII as a band of brothers. TV journalist Tom Brokaw felt inspired to conclude that WWII Americans were the greatest generation in human history, a gross simplification of history’s complex patterns. After 9/11, Brokaw predicted that the grandchildren of WWII Americans would be another greatest generation.

This did not happen, and we now hear less about the mythic picture of WWII. Is this important? Absolutely. How we understand the past profoundly molds the ways in which we approach the present and plan for the future. History impacts real world events. Take the Munich analogy. According to mythologizers, at this 1938 summit meeting, Britain and France missed a clear opportunity to stop Hitler’s aggression, leading to the conclusion that we can never “appease” opponents, but must meet all disagreement with force. This distortion of Munich reverses traditional foreign policy, putting war ahead of diplomacy. George W. Bush and Tony Blair used the Munich analogy to justify attacking Iraq before the UN weapons inspectors had finished work. Precipitate demands for strikes on Iran instead of negotiation embrace the same rationale.

In the unique economic circumstances of WWII, U.S. government spending jump-started under-utilized industrial capacity to create unprecedented prosperity. This led to a popular belief that wars invariably boost the economy. Actually, the reverse may be true: massive military spending detracts from other public needs, such as the need for new roads and bridges or better schools and libraries. We cannot simply wish upon a war to solve our economic dilemmas.

Obsession with duplicating the WWII experience led to misreading 9/11 and therefore to inappropriate conventional military responses that cost billions in treasure and hundreds of thousands of civilians killed or driven from their homes, along with thousands of our troops dead or wounded physically and mentally. Top officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, compared 9/11 to Pearl Harbor. But the events shared only one element in common: serious intelligence failures resulted in “surprise” attacks. The differences were crucial. Pearl Harbor was attacked by the official forces of Imperial Japan. Our enemy was clear and could be fought to conventional unconditional. 9/11 was perpetrated by outlaws mainly originating from our ally, Saudi Arabia. They had no national allegiance or conventional military structure. To destroy al-Qaeda, leading military historian Michael Howard urged an international police action, economical in lives and treasure, with a decent chance of succeeding.

Instead, we launched a conventional war on Afghanistan to deploy our mighty arsenal and allow a vicarious return to The Big War. This strategy appeared to work temporarily but bogged down into America’s longest war when resistance morphed into insurgency. The Taliban and al-Qaeda were not destroyed but shifted operations into western Pakistan. The Bush administration then launched a second inappropriate conventional war, on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Rebutting nervous critics, Vice President Dick Cheney insisted our forces would be welcomed as liberators, replicating France in 1944. Unfortunately, Saddam Hussein was not a foreign occupier like the Nazis. Instead, we became the hated alien occupiers and Iraq remains a failing state.

Parallels to WWII largely fail. WWII was paid for in part by super taxes on the wealthy, and salaries were capped. In the War on Terror, we cut taxes for the rich, leaving a legacy of debt. WWII was fought through the Selective Service, which inducted millions. Our current military is volunteer and represents perhaps 1% of the population. Most young people do not wish to fight, not because they are selfish or cowardly but because they have not bought the rationales for endless war in their short lifetimes. And they know that the most privileged largely shelter their children from harm’s way.

Good War analogies are diminishing because they are irrelevant. Is it time to bury the myth?

adamsMichael C. C. Adams is the author of The Best War Ever: America and World War II, appearing this month in its second edition, and Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War, both published by Johns Hopkins University Press.