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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Half the battle

Belmont Club

Richard Bernstein reviews a spate of books arguing that World War, rather than being the "Good War", was in fact unnecessary. Or worse, that the Allies were as bad as Hitler. What Bernstein calls a "morally relativistic" position.

The two principle arguments which these books bring forward are a) war is hell, ergo every one who wages it is a devil; and there is no distinction between devils. The second argument against fighting World War 2 is more subtle. Things would have taken care of themselves if they had been left alone; or that it was so badly fought the outcome was worse than if it had never been fought at all.


Caroline Glick, in a recent Jerusalem Post article described the strange lure of the argument that unless something can be done perfectly, or at least cleverly, it ought not to be done at all, as epitomized by the views of H.L. Mencken, who maintained until the last that going up against Hitler was a big mistake.

In many ways, Obama and his allies call to mind the influential American newspaperman H.L. Mencken. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Mencken was the most influential writer in the US. He was an anti-Christian and anti-Semitic agnostic, a supporter of Germany during World War I, and a fierce opponent of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. He also opposed American participation in World War II.

In his biography of Mencken, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, Terry Teachout argues that the reason Mencken did not think it was worth fighting Hitler's Germany was because Mencken simply couldn't accept the existence of evil. He could see no moral distinction between Roosevelt, who he despised, and Adolf Hitler who he considered "a boob."

That's not to say that criticism of our received view of World War 2 is not without merit. It was the most brutal conflict in history and it was replete with blunders and incompetence. Taffy 3's crew being left to die in the water after fighting off Kurita's Central Force; the catastrophe at Slapton Sands; the tragic farce at Dieppe; the Army's irrational attachment to the Sherman tank; Peleilu; the surprise of the Battle of the Bulge. More men died at Iwo Jima than ... well, never mind.

These failures are very little in evidence in Steven Speilberg's productions, where World War 2 is raised in nobility (if it were possible to do so) in order to denigrate Vietnam and Iraq. The popular memory of the Second World War is a distorted one. The world yearly hangs its head in commemoration of Hiroshima. But it has forgotten Dresden or Manila, where civilians died in numbers almost as great or greater than in that doomed Japanese city.

But in the end, as Bernstein understands, that when the Best becomes the enemy of the Good it objectively becomes the ally of the Worst. Whatever Churchill and Roosevelt's shortcomings -- and they were many -- the alternatives were Hitler, Tojo and Stalin. History is always setting the world on fire and nailing our peckers to the floor. It always confronts us with hard decisions. It is an unfortunate fact that survival is purchased at a price. Everyone walks out the worse for wear.

Let's, in light of this trend, examine for a moment the idea that the United States should have stayed out of the European war. If that had happened, the Hitlerites surely would have conquered all of Europe, minus Britain. There would have been more mass murder of "inferior" peoples. There would also have been no morally tainted alliance with Stalin, no 40-year Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, no firebombings of German cities like Hamburg and Dresden, and no deaths among American soldiers.

Wellington expressed the idea forcefully in his dispatch from Waterloo. "Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won."

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