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Saturday, August 02, 2008

How Good Was the Good War?

by Andrew J Bacevich

The American Conservative (July 14 2008 Issue)

For historians, World War II revisionism is likely to remain a tough sell. The process of enshrining the conflict of 1939-45 as the "Good War" has now advanced to the point of being all but irreversible. The war's canonical lessons, especially those relating to the perils of appeasement, have permanently etched themselves in our collective consciousness.

The problem with this orthodox interpretation is not that it's wrong but that it is inadequate. The reflexive tendency to see every antagonist as another Hitler (or Stalin) and every sensitive diplomatic encounter as a potential Munich (or Yalta) has produced an approach to statecraft that is excessively militarized, needlessly inflexible, and insufficiently imaginative. The remedy is not to engage in a vain effort to change the way Americans remember World War II, however, but to restore that conflict to its proper context.

Ripped out of context, the war, especially the struggle against Nazi Germany, has become a parable. Whatever their value as a source of moral instruction, parables offer less help when it comes to understanding international politics. Parables simplify - and to simplify the past is necessarily to distort it.

The neoconservative writer Norman Podhoretz illustrates how this penchant for treating World War II as a parable yields distorted and even mischievous results. Since 9/11, he has insistently argued that the correct name for the conflict commonly known as the global war on terror is actually "World War IV". Podhoretz's logic runs like this: the Cold War was really "World War III", essentially a replay of World War II, the threat posed by communism serving as a variant of the old threat posed by fascism. For Podhoretz, the horrific events of September 2001 thrust the West back to the days of September 1939. The imperative of the moment was to launch yet another crusade on behalf of freedom and democracy, this time against a third totalitarian ideology that Podhoretz labeled "Islamofascism". All that was needed was a new Winston Churchill to lead this crusade, and Podhoretz found his man, however improbably, in George W Bush.

Strangely absent from Podhoretz's narrative is the event that actually touched off this sequence of global conflicts and without which World Wars II and III - not to mention IV - would never have occurred. I refer here, of course, to the epic bloodletting of 1914-18, for a time known as "the Great War".

Podhoretz gets away with ignoring World War I because the vast majority of his fellow citizens are similarly predisposed. For present-day Americans, the enterprise once fervently, then derisively, referred to as "the war to end all wars" possesses about as much political and cultural salience as Shays' Rebellion.

This marginalization of World War I is unfortunate. In fact, that conflagration and the peacemaking process that followed offer a mother lode of instruction for American policymakers today.

World War I does not easily reduce to a parable. Even a polemicist as talented as Podhoretz would be hard pressed to render it as a story pitting good against evil or freedom against totalitarianism. It was instead a vast, complex, and utterly avoidable tragedy, a war of empires on behalf of empire. A handful of naïve and stupid statesmen, who fancied that in war lay the solution to all manner of problems, inflicted incalculable moral and material damage upon Western civilization, while accelerating the decline of European power and leaving a poisonous legacy.

Doing his part to spread those poisons was none other than Winston Churchill, celebrated by Norman Podhoretz as the central figure in the reduction of World War II to a parable. As a member of the war cabinet, Churchill made contributions to British policy in World War I that are at least as worthy of study today as his contributions to World War II.

For example, as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1915, Churchill conceived of the Gallipoli campaign. To appropriate a term from our own day, this amphibious invasion of Turkey was expected to be a "cakewalk" opening up any number of additional opportunities. It turned out to be a disaster that consumed the lives of tens of thousands of British, French, and Anzac soldiers while accomplishing nothing. Gallipoli still stands as a warning to those who fancy that military power offers the means to transform the Islamic world.

After the armistice of 1918, as secretary of state for the colonies, Churchill played an important role in redrawing the map of the Middle East. The purpose of this exercise was not to advance the cause of freedom and democracy but to extend British hegemony and control of Persian Gulf oil. One result of this effort was to invent the nation-state of Iraq, which soon became and remains a source of instability and disorder, although these days the United States rather than Great Britain foots most of the bills.

So let us by all means venerate the Winston Churchill who warned of the threat posed by Hitler and who inspired Britons to make their lonely stand against Nazi Germany in 1940, thereby stirring so many American hearts as well. Yet let us also remember the Churchill who did so much to bollix up the Middle East and to create the conditions that gave rise to the utterly avoidable tragedy that is Podhoretz's World War IV.

We can learn much not only from the Good Winston but from the Bad Winston as well.

Andrew J Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book is The Limits of Power, published by Metropolitan Books.

Copyright (c) 2008 The American Conservative

Bill Totten


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