As I have written about before, my fascination with the Second World War has very deep roots. As we approach the 75th anniversary of its end, those who actually fought in the war are dwindling, and within 20 years, even those who remember it will be gone. I increasingly worry that the lessons of that war will no longer be taught, or will be altered to serve another narrative altogether. Attending the Thunder over Michigan airshow yesterday, I was reminded of that other narrative–the one where every single war fought by the United States was essentially done only for the profoundly selfish reason of “preserving our freedoms.” In this narrative–voiced at one point by one of the announcers–the journalist, the community organizer, the protester, and the flag burner owe their right to do these things solely to the deeds of the soldier. The subtext there is that all of these people are ingrates who dishonour those who fought in their name. It places the soldier up onto a pedestal, to be adored and worshiped, but–too often–otherwise neglected once their ‘duty’ is done.
It’s somehow different here in Canada, and I suspect in Britain and France and the other Western allies as well (Russia is its own special case.) Here, the narrative about the Second World War focuses first on sacrifice, not for the more abstract concept of “freedom”, but because these nations were combatants in the war almost from Day 1–even though they were not initially directly attacked. When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, it became clear that there were no limits to their designs on European territory. These countries could have turned their back on Poland, as they had earlier with the Anschluss, and Germany certainly tried to get the British to do just that. Declaring war on Germany potentially meant suicide for Britain and France, but yet they did it, because ignoring Hitler would not make him go away. Britain had tried to come to terms with Nazi Germany. It hadn’t worked. And so, they stepped forward, and along with them, the Commonwealth countries, including Canada. They were willing to put their lives on the line for the survival of their nations–pure and simple.
The United States, on the other hand, stayed isolationist until they were finally attacked in late 1941; only then did they formally enter the war (although they had certainly been helping the Allied cause throughout the early part of the war). They entered because they were attacked; the narrative for the US was thus initially one of vengeance. For most Americans, there was never a serious threat to the physical well-being of the mainland. US soldiers went “over there” (including to some US territories in the Pacific) to fight. Then a second narrative–the preservation of democracy, particularly in Europe–quickly became important, so essentially two threads carried forward: Vengeance in the Pacific against the Japanese, and aid to the friends of the United States in Europe.
In the dying days of the war, the United States learned what Europe had suspected, but tried to ignore for years: the reality of the Nazi regime’s war on Jews and other ‘undesirables.’ This introduced a third narrative: the war was fought not just over land, or that democracy might prevail over dictatorship, but because the Nazis were perpetrating atrocities. The young men who liberated the concentration camps saw this first-hand, and it became a key part of the narrative coming out of the war. “Never again” became a rallying cry–the lessons of the Holocaust would not be forgotten. But what is often forgotten is that in the US, these lessons were only truly learned because the evidence could not be ignored after the fact. At the same time, it was easy to put a sense of distance between the horror in Europe and the United States. There were no bombed-out cities in the United States, no massive camps with incinerators, no civilian casualties, no stories of slaughter of children, no brave resistance. The United States had only the soldiers to return home as eyewitnesses; many did not come home at all, having paid with their lives. Very little US territory had ever been threatened in the war, so the mythology of the causes of the war became one of ideals: Democracy. Justice. Freedom.
And I think that’s where that narrative of the soldier as the only guarantor of freedom really comes into focus. When we’re talking about WWII, it’s easy to be idealistic. Few would take the side of the Axis, whose ideology was incontrovertibly cruel and evil, especially to those soldiers who had seen its horrors first-hand. It was an easy pivot to see the next two conflicts–Korea and Vietnam–as similar battles of good vs. evil, with “Communism” replacing fascism in the narrative. There was no doubt that the regimes of the Soviet Bloc were repressive; stepping in to both safeguard Western Europe and to try to prevent the spread of Communism and to uphold freedom were seen as worthy goals, and each soldier’s death became a sacrifice in service of these ideals. Even as it became clear in Vietnam that ideals were not enough, that there was no black and white, only grey, the soldier was still idealized as the guardian of freedom. As the Cold War ended and with it the spectre of Soviet communism, new conflicts in the Middle East drew the US’ attention–conflicts where, at least before 2001, the US had no real stake other than humanitarian–or business–interests. The former, of course, was more palatable, and so once again, the soldier (now part of a volunteer Armed Forces) was called to “defend our freedoms.”
The 9/11 attacks in many ways ended this idealism–since this time, US citizens–civilians–had been killed on home soil. The US was fighting to avenge them. Those attacks unified the country for a few years against the perpetrators–but it soon became muddled as to who exactly those perpetrators were, and where exacting retribution against al-Quaeda ended and expanding the business interests of certain Americans began. The soldiers, however, fought on, now even more lionized (yet marginalized) by a traumatized nation. “Freedom” has remained a watchword–but the meaning has changed. The soldier is worshiped abstractly as the physical defender of the nation and “what it stands for”, the only entity capable of sacrifice and suffering on its behalf. And when I say “nation”, I mean the US–because increasingly, that’s all that matters. The rest of the world is more a burden than something worth fighting to protect from despots; indeed, the US has allied with despots going all the way back to Stalin when it suits their interests.
And there is a tendency now to cast the conflicts of the past in the same light–one where the US takes centre stage, fighting first and foremost for its own interests and ideals. The narrative of WWII, in particular, as its last soldiers die out, is often now cast in popular discourse to serve this “America First” end. The roles of the Allies (who the US had to “rescue” in Europe) is diminished in this narrative to sidekicks to the superhero Yank. Yet it was not in war where the victory of WWII was finally won, it was in peace. The United States took a key role post-war in rebuilding a shattered Europe, in bringing war criminals to justice, and helping to build the United Nations. Great sacrifice by the soldiers of many nations is what ended the horror of war, but it was then the work of millions, working together to shape new institutions and to rebuild the fabric of daily life that allowed the ideals of justice, democracy, and freedom to take root in soil made barren by bloodshed. This is the US’ legacy. Together, they tended the garden, and the ideals grew and flourished, and the people of Western Europe (and later, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Eastern Europe as well) largely took them to heart.
In the United States, however, the garden has become infested increasingly with weeds. They’re green and lush, and look pleasant initially, but they start to take over, choking out that which is beautiful, leaving behind only the simulacrum of a garden, built on the same foundations, but serving no end but its own relentless goals of domination. The gardeners tell us it is the exact same garden, worth defending, worth the soldier’s sacrifice, and let none gainsay these truths: Freedom. Justice. Democracy.
These are noble truths. But are they true?