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GWB and his “Churchill cult”

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Geoffrey Wheatcroft writes in NY Review of Books, one of my favorite journals of opinion, writes an interesting review of several books about Churchill titled Churchill and his myths.

Apparently Wheatcroft is writing his own book about Churchill.

I find the following excerpt from the NYRB review most interesting:

And yet the strangest thing is that Churchill knew what a hateful regression all this was, or a part of him knew that. In My Early Life, his most engaging book, he writes a romantic reverie about cavalry warfare in the good old days, cast aside in “a greedy, base, opportunist” manner by

chemists in spectacles and chauffeurs pulling at the levers of aeroplanes…. War, which used to be cruel and magnificent, has now become cruel and squalid…we now have entire populations, including even women and children, pitted against one another in brutish mutual extermination.

Ten years after writing that, Churchill led the way in cruel, brutish, and exterminatory war-making against women and children, partly thanks to his uncompromising personality, partly thanks to what was seen as the logic of the situation. Three years after he hoped for “devastating, exterminating” attacks on civilians, he was shown blazing German towns filmed from the air, and exclaimed, “Are we beasts? Have we taken this too far?” And two years after that he tried (not very creditably) to dissociate himself from the destruction of Dresden by Bomber Command. He was the same man—the same immensely complex man—in 1930, 1940, 1943, and 1945. He was the same man still when, in his last speech as prime minister before his final retirement in 1955, he wondered sadly, “Which way shall we turn to save our lives and the future of the world?”

Those words are quoted by John Lukacs at the end of his essay, though he doesn’t draw any further moral. Lynne Olson does. In the best sentence in her book, about the Suez adventure of 1956, she writes, “Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, the lessons of Munich and appeasement were wrongly applied to a later international crisis.” Likewise, having rightly observed that “there has arisen among America’s elite a Churchill cult,” Patrick Buchanan devotes a chapter, “Man of the Century,” to denouncing the cult, and the man. He not only looks askance at Churchill’s saying in September 1943 that “to achieve the extirpation of Nazi tyranny there are no lengths of violence to which we will not go”; he chastises the administration of George Bush the Younger—who installed a bust of Churchill in the Oval Office—for having emulated “every folly of imperial Britain in her plunge from power,” and having drawn every wrong lesson from Churchill’s career. There is by now an entire book to be written about the way that “Munich,” “appeasement,” and “Churchill” have been ritually invoked, from Suez to Vietnam to Iraq, so often in false analogy, and so often with calamitous results.

Which of us knows for sure whether any war can ever be “good”? The conclusion one might well draw from the story told in different ways by these books is that there may never be good wars or just wars, but that there may be necessary wars; and that the war in which Churchill led his country, awful and inexcusable as its means sometimes were, and grim as many of its consequences, really was a “war of necessity,” just as much as the present war in Iraq was not. We should almost be grateful to George Bush and Tony Blair for illuminating the distinction.

Since my life was so affected by the Spanish Civil War and WW II until July 10 1940, I am very attracted  to all critical commentary about great WW II personalities like Churchill. What I gets most of my attention in Wheatcroft’s review is that he ties together several “good war” personalities to point to their shortcomings.

My bottom line is that all war is bad, but I do realize (without accepting) that some wars may be necessary. War on the Eastern Front in WW II could not be avoided given the ambitions of Hitler and the “deaf and blind” policies of Stalin. Considering the unmitigated brutalities on both sides during that 4 year campaign, how can the word “good” be written next to “war”?

Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2008/05/12 at 09:59

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