Thinking about World War II

I have two new articles out, both dealing with the legacy of World War II (the occasion being Victory in Europe Day on May 8, and Russia’s Victory Day May 9).

My debut on, Victory Day Festivities In Moscow, examines that legacy in Russia, where the very real pride and grief the  people feel over their country’s victory and sacrifice in the war against Nazi Germany are exploited for its own ends by the authoritarian regime in power.  Meanwhile, my latest column, Lessons From World War II, looks at the mythology of  the “Good War” that prevails in both Russia and the United States, with startling similarities in some cases, and at the enduring influence of that mythology in our own time — as well as the difficult and relevant questions WWII poses about war and morality.

My conclusion:

Despite its darkest moments, World War II remains “the Good War” – not because we were impeccably good, but because we fought an enemy that was as close as one can be to pure evil. It also belies the popular notion that if we cross certain moral lines to achieve our war aims, we will become just as bad as the enemy: the staggering casualties in the firebombing of Dresden notwithstanding, Churchill did not “sink to the level” of the leaders of the Third Reich.

World War II reminds us about the limits of idealism. Looking back, many people wonder if we would have won the war with the level of media openness and respect for human rights that we have today. That’s a legitimate question – but its seamy side is a dangerous nostalgia for a “simpler” time when soldiers could do their job without having to think of sissy stuff like rights and legalities.

Perhaps the real lesson of World War II is that a free, civilized society at war will always seek to strike some balance between self-defense and principle. Sometimes, it will err badly. To defend these errors as fully justified is to betray our own values and start on a road that leads to the kind of authoritarian mindset so rampant in Putin’s Russia. To condemn them with no understanding of their context is a self-righteous utopian posture that, in the end, does liberal values a disservice.


But please, do read the whole thing.

Much to my surprise, I got semi-positive feedback on this column from my frequent nemesis Daniel Larison of The American Conservative.  (Someone check the temperature in Hell!)  However, Mr. Larison takes issue with this passage:

The “Good War,” like the Good Book, can be put in the service of any agenda. Conservatives invoke it to justify military action: “What about Hitler?” is a devastating, if cliché, rebuttal to the pacifist insistence that there is never a good reason to start a war. It is, to some extent, an unfair argument that much too easily confers the status of Hitler on our enemy of the day. But it also makes a valid and important point: evil does exist (if usually on a smaller scale than Nazism), and to refuse to fight it is to ensure its triumph.


Specifically, he points out that it was Hitler who started the war, and that the need to fight Hitler does not disprove the wrongness of starting a war.   I stand corrected, and plead guilty to careless use of language: what I should have said was “go to war,” not “start a war.”  Or maybe it was a Freudian slip that reveals my inner militarist.



Filed under Russia, US foreign policy, War

2 responses to “Thinking about World War II

  1. Pingback: Pondering The Enduring Impact Of World War II | The Moderate Voice

  2. jerry

    Catching up on my reading…. I don’t even have a frequent nemesis, so at least you have that going for you!

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