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Posts Tagged ‘Churchill

Second thoughts about the morality of WW II and both sides

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Adam Kirsch is a senior editor with The New Republic. I recall reading his stuff before and remember that a lot of it was thought provoking. This review of WW II histories is no less thought provoking. The NY Times piece offers this set of seldom seen images of that horrible time that I brushed so close to in France during May and June 1940. Kirsch’s ending is most evocative for me:

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.

My own Lilliputian view is that the world conflict known to us as WW II really began in Manchuria, now  a major part of northeast China, in September 1931. Generals of Japan’s Kwantung Army, which occupied parts  of southern Manchuria, decided for their own nationalistic reasons to undertake invasion and near war against China, which seemed a conquerable power at that time. It’s notable that Japan’s war in China lasted about 14 years and was followed by open civil war in China between the Kuomintang of Chiang-Kai-Shek and Mao’s Communist forces, which ended in October 1949.

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Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2011/05/27 at 19:02

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