One of the results of becoming politically conscious is you come to realize 95 percent of what you were taught in history class is simply not true. Columbus did not actually discover America; Abraham Lincoln's allegedly singular role in "ending slavery" is considerably overblown; the Founding Fathers were largely uninterested in democracy; and World War II was hardly the "good war."
Of course, this last one presupposes that any war can be considered "good," "great" or otherwise just. Certainly, there may be times in human history when a nation must resort to military force to defend itself from an invading country that cannot be reasoned with or appeased.
But once you start labeling certain wars with superlative adjectives (World War I & II, The Civil War, The Revolutionary War), it creates a false concept that some forms of mass slaughter are, ultimately, acceptable. The so-called "bad" wars, meanwhile (Vietnam, the Iraq War, Granada, Haiti, Cuba, the Spanish-American War, to name just a few), were not, we are told, so much "wrong" or "immoral" in terms of their justifications. ("We meant well...") These wars were fought for the "right reasons," the wars' architects assure us. They were just poorly executed.
World War II, more so than any other major military conflict, has taken on mythic status in American culture. Acclaimed movies like Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, and Flags of Our Fathers along with realistic (and disturbingly popular) video games like Call of Duty have further reinforced WWII's celebrated status.
Bruce Russett, professor of political science at Yale, sums up the war's unassailable status. "Participation in the war against Hitler remains almost wholly sacrosanct, nearly in the realm of theology," he writes.
Whatever criticisms of twentieth-century American policy are put forth, United States participation in World War II remains almost entirely immune. According to our national mythology, that was a "good war," one of the few for which the benefits clearly outweighed the costs.
Case in point is the Brick Store Museum in my hometown of Kennebunk. The museum's featured exhibit of the summer is called "Vitamin V: How Food Fought the Second World War." In addition to the exhibit itself, local singer/songwriter, Monica Grabin performed a set of shows at the museum featuring folk songs from the two respective world wars.
Grabin--a dyed-in-the-wool liberal who boasts on her website of having Democratic Maine State Rep. Emily Cain join her on-stage to sing a song last year--regularly performs these sorts of "historical" folk shows. While there is certainly no debating Grabin's talent and musical prowess, her musical history lessons are not altogether different from your high school teacher's. Hers is more a sort of "pop" history, not unlike what one might find on The History Channel. She reinforces all the commonly believed myths surrounding WWI and II, while leaving the very notion of the moral legitimacy of these wars as less than an afterthought.
"But wasn't World War II fought for all the right reasons?" you ask. "Weren't we fighting to save democracy from fascism? Besides, wasn't Hitler just innately evil?"
Certainly, I am not suggesting the U.S. should have remained passive while hundreds of thousands of innocents were sent to death camps. And, while I am not a fan of labeling any human being as necessarily "evil"--or for that matter, especially "good"--there is no denying Hitler and the Nazis' acts were indisputably heinous.
That said, it is no great breach of morality--and certainly not a form of "anti-Semitism" as some may reactively suggest--to question the motives behind U.S. involvement in the so-called "good war."
Indeed, it is difficult to make the case America was fighting for any sort of moral high-ground in WWII (i.e. to "save the Jews") when it deliberately kept half of its own citizens--African Americans--segregated, cut-off from mainstream white society, and otherwise politically, economically, and socially disempowered.
As historian Howard Zinn writes in A People's History of the United States, "...blacks, looking at anti-Semitism in Germany, might not see their own situation in the U.S. as much different" (p. 409).
Ironically, black Americans who did enlist to fight overseas found themselves fully segregated from the white soldiers throughout their training and deployment. And this is to say nothing of the internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans at home.
Hmmm... I wonder how many songs Grabin sang about these racist double-standards?
The fact is, in 1939 while Hitler was rapidly conquering parts of Europe, Americans were in no rush to enter a second world war. Not only had the devastating economic impacts of the Great Depression generated a strong sense of isolationism among Americans. But they also created a widespread--and conveniently ignored in high school history textbooks--feeling that capitalism had utterly failed.
While Roosevelt's New Deal programs helped stave off this attitude, American involvement in WWII was the real clincher. It was, to put it bluntly, a war to save capitalism. Saving the Jews, protecting democracy, defeating fascism--all of these concerns were secondary to maintaining Western capitalism and ensuring the United States' global supremacy.
As Leon Trotsky observed at the dawn of WWII:
The present war--the second imperialist war--is not an accident; it does not result from the will of this or that dictator. It was predicted long ago. It derived its origin inexorably from the contradiction of international capitalist interest.... The United States must "organize" the world. History is bringing humanity face to face with the volcanic eruption of American Imperialism.
Indeed, after the war, only two nations emerged as the indisputable super-powers of the globe: The United States and the Soviet Union. Less than 50 years later, the latter country ceased to exist, leaving America as the world's sole military and corporate empire.
The post-war era also marked a profound change in America's very identity, as the country shifted from a production-based economy, to one centered on consumption. Public relations pioneers, Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann utilized Sigmund Freud's controversial theories of psychoanalysis to manipulate public opinion, creating false needs and desires that could only be appeased through material consumption, and otherwise "manufacture consent," to use Lippmann's term. The very role of the individual dramatically changed during this time from one of citizen to consumer.
Indeed, one could argue all the various crises that currently plague our democracy--the dominating role of the corporate state; the legal pretense of corporations as "people"; the corroding influence of money in politics; the death of the liberal class and with it, the Democratic Party; the rise of the military-industrial-complex; the overconsumption that is ravaging the planet; the climate crisis, etc--were set in motion during the post-WWII years.
And here I thought we won the war. Seems more like a victory for the corporate state than the American people, if you ask me.
Finally, even if one concedes that World War II was "inevitable," that war with the Nazis was simply "unavoidable," nothing Hitler's armies did justified what was arguably the conflict's most egregious war crime: The use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
All historical evidence suggests the U.S. would have easily defeated Japan without the use of nuclear weapons. In fact, Japan was on the verge of surrendering before the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, on Aug. 6, 1945. And the U.S. was well aware of Japan's impending surrender since they had, by that time, cracked their communication codes.
No, America's use of the first nuclear weapon was less about defeating Japan than about demonstrating military supremacy to the world--to the Russians, especially. As a result, some 100,000 Japanese were horribly killed. Thousands more slowly died from radiation poisoning.
We study history in order to learn from the mistakes of the past, so that they may not be repeated in the future. But how are we to truly learn from the past when so much of what we think we know about it amounts to propaganda, distortion, and outright lies?
More importantly, we need to move beyond this childish concept that some wars are "good,"--even "noble" or "desirable." War is always a choice. Often the choice to go to war is not made by the American people themselves, but by a small, zealous cabal of corporatists fighting for profits, interests and motivations that have no impact on the rest of us. But war is a choice, nonetheless. And it is rarely a wise one.
"War is by definition," said Zinn during a speech titled "Three Holy Wars," "the indiscriminate killing of huge numbers of people for ends which are uncertain.... The means are horrible, certainly. The ends, uncertain."