Notes from Underground


The "good old days" of total war



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Unlike some cynics I know, I actually have some use for nostalgia. Even when the "good old days" weren't really that good, it strikes me that there is still something worthwhile about remembering them as such. I'm well-acquainted with the nostalgic impulse, having succumbed to its charms many a time; and I find that it arouses in the human heart a bittersweet longing for true purity, innocence, and beauty, which can often bring out the best in us. A conviction of having fallen from an Edenic beginning into a corrupt, sin-stained present can make one reverent toward the notion of virtue, even when virtuous behavior may be conspicuously absent from one's own life. On the other hand, there is little more unbecoming in a person than a flippant, dismissive, patronizing attitude toward wholesomeness, an attitude that we usually find among people who disdain nostalgia as foolish and retrograde.

Of course nostalgia, like every good thing, can be misused. A case in point is the hype surrounding the latest Ken Burns documentary, "The War," which chronicles the experiences of several men who wind up in the U.S. military and fight in World War II, as well as the effects of the so-called war effort on several American towns during that period. Indeed, "The War," which has run on PBS stations across the country over the past few weeks, seems to have aroused a rather pernicious form of nostalgia in many: a longing for a time when nobody whined about niceties such as the immorality of torture or targeting civilians, and when mass bombings of cities, resulting in the killing of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children, were no big deal and nothing to write home about — except of course when our enemies did it to our cities and our fellow citizens, in which case (self-serving hypocrisy knowing no bounds) it was of course a travesty and a crime against humanity.

That Burns himself wants that reaction from his viewers is doubtful, but he has done little to distance himself from it or criticize it, perhaps because he knows that doing so might mean alienating his core viewership. To be fair, Burns has said in some interviews that part of his motivation for making the film was to debunk certain myths about World War II being the "good war" — that in fact he wanted to draw attention to the destructiveness of the conflict, and to the fact that the "good guys" (the Allies) didn't always do good things, even though some might claim that their ends justified their means, i.e., that defeating the Nazis justified the terroristic firebombings of Hamburg and Dresden, and that vanquishing the "yellow peril" of imperial Japan made necessary the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, among other atrocities.

If Burns meant to question the image of World War II as a "good war," however, I doubt that many viewers have gotten the point. What I have watched of "The War" hasn't given me the impression that Burns is overconcerned with pushing any kind of bold, historically revisionist perspective. The documentary is, of course, well-researched and meticulously detailed, but I find that it has the same off-putting, treacly, slightly smug feel of previous Ken Burns efforts. Like them, it is propaganda of a subtle sort, which aims to lead us to certain conclusions which, if not flatly wrong, aren't terribly interesting or challenging: racism is bad, fascism is bad, anti-Semitism is bad, sacrifice should be honored, American ingenuity is a sight to behold, America's diversity is her greatest strength, and so forth.

In spite of Burns's own obvious liberal/leftist convictions, however, "The War" seems to have made quite a splash among the denizens and devotees of neoconservative-dominated talk radio, for the very fact that they read it as an affirmation of the precepts they hold dear — that is, as a sort of apologia for total war rather than a repudiation of the same. Worse still, Burns has done little to counter that misinterpretation; indeed, he has spent time on talk radio actively courting its listeners. As a guest on the Laura Ingraham show last month, the unctuous-voiced Burns ingratiated himself to his host something fierce — agreeing wholeheartedly that Miss Ingraham was brilliantly spot on in her assessment that "the war effort" as waged by the Allies was a tremendously virtuous undertaking, and neglecting to question the official narrative of the "good war" one iota. Not too long after that interview, no less an Authority than Rush Limbaugh himself praised "The War" for opening a portal into a time period where soldiers did what it took to win a war and people weren't such pansies about the fact that (quoting General Sherman, one of the monsters of history) war was hell.

There are certainly many tales of bravery, heroism, and noble sacrifice among those who fought "the good war." Unfortunately, there are many more tales of horrible and senseless slaughter and destruction, committed by those fighting on both sides of the terrible conflict. According to traditional Christian just-war doctrine, wars are sometimes justified and even necessary, provided that they are waged in self-defense with a proper sense of proportionality, and provided that civilians are never targeted and that their injury or death is never callously viewed as "collateral damage." Given the alternatives (and leaving aside for a moment the fact that the Allied victory strengthened the hand of Josef Stalin, a more brutal and sinister dictator than Adolf Hitler), it is fortunate that the Allies won the war; however, the manner by which they emerged victorious — through endless, murderous campaigns against civilian centers in Axis countries — is an immoral travesty, one that should make us hide our head in shame rather than brazenly pump our fists and thump our chest.

In the context of the current so-called war on terror, the thing that makes the clamoring among neocon elites and their followers for a return to World War II-era mores — a "pagan ethos," as one writer approvingly termed it — so grotesque is that it is an inversion of what could be termed the proper use of nostalgia. [*] Proper nostalgia looks longingly to a bygone era because it seeks a time of greater innocence and virtue. It is largely true that the 1940s were a more innocent and virtuous time than now, when we consider such factors as the strength of the family then as compared to its current state of dissolution, or when we contrast the relative squeaky-cleanliness of the popular culture of the past (the Andrews Sisters, "Gone with the Wind") to its current state of pornographication and perversion (Britney Spears, "Brokeback Mountain").

But it isn't as though today's armchair terror-warriors are demanding a reversion to a ethos of civility and restraint, a return to a time when the strongest profanity heard among teenage boys was "geez," when men respectfully stood and doffed their hats to greet a lady's entrance into a room, and when swing moves were as risqué as things got on the dance floor. They do not, that is, seek to revive what was actually good about the "good old days," but rather what was bad, even terrible about the past. Our greater squeamishness about violence against civilians in wartime is one of the few ways in which we can be said to have morally improved in our overall outlook since the 1940s, contrasting with numerous counter-examples of our conspicuous moral decline. Today, after all, members of the military actually sometimes get in trouble when they are caught brutalizing people.

Yet today's neocons can always be counted on to complain when that happens. If only, they say, we could return to the days when the media didn't report such things, and in any case, when people didn't find such things appalling; after all, war is war; stuff happens; you can't fight "nicely" if you want to win, and so on. Thus, they look wistfully to a golden age when America was united in its quest to crush the "Krauts" and the "Japs," at whatever cost, a simpler time when men were men, when bombs fell freely on enemy cities, incinerating entire populations, and nobody was a bleeding-heart crybaby about it. With an Orwellian flourish, they declare that we need to regain the "moral clarity" we had then in order to fight our current enemies with greater force and fervor — that is, we need clarity of morals in order to help us to be more cruel and ruthless, as if embracing morality will assist us in behaving immorally.

The species of nostalgia that inspires this mindset is not just foolish. It is evil. Taken to its logical extreme in a nuclear age, it is an invitation to mass destruction. For the sake of the ultimate health of our bodies and souls, we would be well advised to resist the temptation to embrace it anew.

November 27, 2007

© 2007 WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

Mr. Nowicki's personal blog is Dyspeptic Myopic, at www.andynowicki.blogspot.com.

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* Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos, by Robert Kaplan (New York: Random House, 2001).

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