The Profundity of the Second World War
The profundity of the Second World War as an historical event is still elusive perhaps because it is so obvious. That is despite the fact that anyone living in the shadow of that war, as I have all my life, can learn endless things about the War. Its diplomatic and military history has been done in exhausting detail. The quality of life on the home front, as well as the economic miracles performed in American factories as well as in German factories up until the very end, has also been elaborately studied. The War is recognized as the start of the nuclear age, the era of superpowers and of decolonization as well as of the genocide that seems the nadir of the profound evil that had been unleashed upon the world by the Nazis. But why is it so special except that it is so near to us, and so can be given details that are not available for other epical moments, such as the founding of most religions? Or maybe it is not up there with such events and will, in a generation or two, pass on into being just one of those particularly horrid wars, like the Thirty Years War, that are now known only to historians, or the American Civil War, which remains alive because its issues are still alive?
The statistics are staggering. More people died during the Second World War than in any other war; the War engulfed more of the world than any other war; the drama of a succession of defeats for the allies that was followed by a string of virtually unbroken victories, the pivots being the Battle of Midway and Normandy and Stalingrad, is a far more clear and satisfying construction than is provided by the American Revolutionary War, which had many ebbs and flows, or the American Civil War, which also went back and forth until the Rebs had become either too demoralized or ran out of resources from which to raise yet another army. All of which is not to speak of the Civil War in Seventeenth Century England, where there were numerous small battles and one after another castle and town reduced, and the drama was in what was happening in Parliament. But that does not get to the heart of the matter.
What is key is the idea that this was not just a necessary war but one whose goals could not be compromised. Nothing less than the future of civilization was at stake. Churchill fought on because he knew that even when it would have seemed good sense to come to some compromise with Hitler. No Powell Doctrine of having an exit strategy made sense. The only way to get out without total victory was to surrender to another Dark Age. The Cold War had some of those trappings but even there it could be imagined that a long lasting truce could have been arranged between the Soviet Bloc and the Western Bloc. Each would stay on its side of some line, some Iron Curtain, and things would go on like that for centuries. The First World War could have been avoided if there had been some rejiggering of the relations between the European Powers: recognition of Germany as a naval power might have been enough to get it to turn its eyes more fully on the economic and cultural imperialism it had already begun in Eastern Europe. Let the French and the English fight over Africa.
Most wars other than the Second World Warseem to be merely, to use that famous phrase, “the extension of politics by other means”, which seems so wise because it asserts that there are political goals to wars, but is deeply immoral because it is asserting that all that carnage is carried out so as to accomplish goals that could also have been accomplished through political means. You open the door to hell at least a little bit because it is a more efficient way to do what you might have done without opening the door to hell.
War is simply too different from other human activities to be seen as a tool of policy. It is certainly the case that people do die from economic oppression and from slavery. But these are conditions that are stable and become the way of life of people rather than merely a form of how to die. People can die of starvation, but slowly; people are scarred in their body and spirits by working under onerous conditions, but that is the human condition and will be for a while till there is universal prosperity while war is the deliberate sacrifice of the lives of soldiers and vast numbers of civilians. It had better be in more than a good cause; it had better be in an absolutely essential cause. Otherwise a war is frivolous.
That is the way we have come to think of any number of wars which do indeed come close to seeming absolutely required and have had an impact across history. Even the Trojan War, that war which formed the character of the Greek cultures, was a bit frivolous in that its putative cause was that Paris ran away with Helen. Of course, that was a fillip added later on, but it betokens that a clash of world civilizations might not have had to be. The tragedies that enfold the House of Atreus are tied up in that war. They began with the sacrifice by Agamemnon of his daughter so that he could carry on the war. He was a warrior and so were those who went with him. Was it worth it to any of them but Achilles, who was suicidal anyway, preferring to die young and glorious than old and unsung? Odysseus would probably have preferred to stay home, and Philactetes and Ajax as well. Who did well out of that war? Ironically, it was Menelaus, restored to his throne, Helen restored to him. Was he not to be resented for all the suffering that had occurred because he insisted on getting back his woman?
The argument of whether the American Civil War was frivolous because it was unnecessary is well made in American popular culture. Scarlett, at the beginning of Gone With the Wind, is sick of all the war talk. It interferes with her intention to flirt. The young men are the ones looking for a fight even as Rhett tells them they will rue the day they made their boasts. This is not just a movie trying to appease Southern sensibilities by making the war the work of hotheads and so its deeper causes to be dismissed, whether those are numbered as the political difficulty of having two nations coexist between Canada and Mexico, or the issue of slavery, which would just not go away. It is an appeal to the idea that there must have been a way to compromise the interests of the two sides. There might have been a very slow emancipation or at least a set of laws easing the burden of slavery. There might have been more power sharing by the Southern dominated Congress with the Northern dominated Executive. There might have been more Northern investment in the South so that the South could move in the direction of industrialism and so cease to be a third world country. None of these expedients would have worked very well, we can say from a century and a half later, having mentally tried all of them out for size, but the hope is there that the whole epic adventure could have been avoided if people had grasped just how much of hell would come to the surface once hostilities began.
And that insight is so much more powerful when we turn it upon much more limited wars, ones which also had much more limited aims. The Cabinet Wars that led to the unification of Germany were small in scale but they created a goodly number of widows and wounded war veterans and those who fought at the Battle of Sadova during the Seven Weeks War bled real blood and were not just means to the end of a Germany that could have been united by diplomacy.
The uncompromising nature of the Second World War accounts for its distinct feel. The tone is grim rather than heroic. There is a job to be done and let’s get it done with, however distasteful it may be. There is little gloating or the swagger of the bloodthirsty and there is very little praise for suffering. When Patton says that he doesn’t want his soldiers to die for their country but for the enemy soldiers to die for theirs, he is capturing that spirit of practicality. This is not the stuff of epics even if Laurence Olivier used the St. Crispin’s Day speech from “Henry V” to enliven bond drives. It was a show and he knew it and so did everyone else.
What this sense of war does is to produce the full sense of sovereignty as that idea was envisioned by Seventeenth Century political philosophers. A nation answered to no entity other than itself and had life and death control over its inhabitants. Every nation is locked in a no holds barred fight with every nation, the rules of war no more than rules of prudence whereby both sides might, for example, foreswear chemical weapons or ob serve rules of prisoner exchange for purely prudential reasons in that engaging in such practices would not likely aid in defeating the enemy.
Now most nations are not really in a free for all with all other nations. Most nations are economically or culturally dependant on some other nation and there is also an interlocking of the elites of nations, whether of churchmen or members of the aristocratic class or people of wealth and property. Dupont did not want to break its contracts with I. G. Farben at the beginning of the Second World War, though they decided the better of that. Sovereignty is a very jealous god. There is no other nation that can be put before one’s own and the war of all against all is the backdrop of loyalty. What was theoretical became real. Other wars may end in compromise and accommodation, a shift of territory or reparations or a royal marriage. This time, there is nothing to compromise and so surrender is by its nature unconditional, as both Churchill and FDR understood well before FDR announced the doctrine at the Casablanca Conference.
Another think that is produced by this sense of war is that the actual practices of war are not merely customary but whatever is necessary for the successful pursuit of the war. If the purposes of the war are not frivolous, if they are about more than grabbing a little more territory or compelling a royal marriage, much less for the glory of it all, then the means to pursue the war cannot be regarded as frivolous, and to the extent that they are, that can be regarded as a major criticism of a war. If you have to use drones, then you have to use drones, but that is the case only if your enemies are indeed the ones who attacked your homeland.
Now, it is easy enough to say that the usages of past wars were merely flummery. We laugh at the Redcoats who did not use guerilla style warfare but fought in columns, but it takes only elementary historical knowledge to know that the Red Line was a powerful weapon of war. We like to think of as silly the contending armies of an earlier age that agreed on a time when a battle would begin, but that makes sense in that it was to each side’s interest to mobilize those very small forces for a single encounter with baggage trains in the background. Sure, each side might have tried a raid on the other side during the night, but probably not to much effect, while the decisive action had to wait for daylight. So what was customary in warfare also by and large made sense. The question is whether the combatants are serious in that they pursue military objectives however ceremonious they are in dressing up their adventures.
Nowadays, we say that the other side is frivolous, not sufficiently mindful of the purposes of war, when it appeals to mere bloodlust. The other side is inhumane when it does things for show, like cut off ears or defile women, but those measures can be seen as a way to impose terror and so dispirit the enemy, which is important. What the other side does for show, we do for a reason, which is always the final justification for a wartime practice—so long, that is, as our side is worth fighting for, and no where is that more the case than in the Second World War, both sides certain that the world as they knew it would end were they to be defeated. The irony is that in a generation Germany was a restored and prosperous nation, and in two generations, reunified. A Germany run England would not have been the same place. Compare that asymmetry to the one that would have occurred if the South had won the American Civil War. There would have been no end of ongoing border disputes, or as some have imagined, it would have been necessary to impose slavery on the North. In the actual instance, the South recovered its influence over American government within a generation. So the Southern Rebellion was frivolous while the cause of the Allies in the Second World War was not.