British historian Niall Ferguson ruffled some feathers this past week with a
commentary published in the Los Angeles Times on the anniversary of World War
Ferguson, a brilliant writer who is the author of some rather original works
about the First World War, decided that the 60th anniversary of the date that
the Germans' surrender ended the war in Europe was a good opportunity to
question the morality of the Allied cause.
No, not the decision to fight the Nazis. Even though Ferguson is devoted to
the idea that the British made a huge mistake in opposing the expansionist
ambitions of Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany by entering World War I, he doesn't
question the justice of resisting Adolf Hitler.
But, he insists that the war was a "tainted victory" won only at the cost of
"moral compromises" that ought to prompt shame as well as pride in "the gre
atest generation" that fought it.
That's the sort of language that is bound to infuriate the dwindling band of
veterans of that conflict. But hurt feelings notwithstanding, we need to
answer his challenge about this history and to relate it to our own time.
As for the details of World War II, Ferguson is, of course, right. The war
was won on the basis of an Anglo-British alliance with a totalitarian regime led
by a tyrant nearly as mad as Hitler: Soviet Union under Josef Stalin.
Stalin murdered nearly as many of his own people as Hitler did. In addition,
Soviet revenge for the mass murders, pillage and rape of the Soviet Union
carried out by the Nazis was nothing less than the rape and pillage of Germany.
And when the war ended with the Red Army in possession of Eastern Europe, the
peace that followed ushered in a 40-year period of slavery for the peoples
trapped in those satellite states that were the fruit of the Allied deal with
the Soviet devil.
All of which explains why President Bush's rightful denunciation of the
Soviet oppression of the Baltic states this week was so bitterly resented by the
Russians, especially President Vladimir Putin, a man who seems to fancy himself
as the reincarnation of the Romanov Tsars - if not Uncle Joe himself.
And, as Ferguson points out, not everything the United States and our gallant
British allies did was without blemish either. The Allied strategic bombing
campaign that wrecked havoc on Germany and Japan, took the lives of hundreds of
thousands many of whom were probably innocent civilians. That the Americans
and Brits eventually took up the same indiscriminate bombing tactics that they
had originally denounced as evidence of Axis barbarity shows, in the
historian's mind, that the Allies had thrown away any "moral restraint" in the pursuit
Can we agree? This is not a purely academic question, because his abuse of
the Allies echoes the rise of revisionist sentiments in both Germany and Japan.
In Germany, where guilt for the Holocaust has been drilled into the
consciousness of the country, public discussion of German suffering during the war is
becoming fashionable. While not quite asking for equal status with the victims
of Nazi persecution and aggression, many contemporary Germans think it is high
time we talked more about German civilian deaths.
And in Japan, revisionism about their wholesale atrocities in China, the
Philippines and the rest of Asia is also growing.
The problem with German and Japanese whining about the suffering they
underwent due to their own evil actions towards others isn't just that it's in
extremely bad taste for them to behave as if they were the victims instead of the
perpetrators. This discussion is also being turned into ammunition for those
who wish to paint current American war aims and tactics as inherently disreputable.
The excesses of such World War II revisionism should teach us that when we
focus exclusively on those who suffered because of actions taken by those with
the preponderance of right on their side, our view of the entire conflict can
become hopelessly distorted.
It is in that same context that we should take much of the ongoing discussion
of America's moral failures in Iraq or Israel's moral failures in its
battles of survival against the Palestinians.
Neither the U.S. Armed Forces nor the Israel Defense Force is perfect.
CRIMES AND ALLEGATIONS
The Abu Ghraib prison scandal showed that there are some Americans who have
abused their positions and committed despicable acts.
Likewise, the IDF is not populated exclusively by saints. Confrontations at
checkpoints set up to deter suicide bombers have resulted in unpleasant
incidents that do not always reflect well on the State of Israel. Nor can the IDF,
just like the U.S. forces in Iraq, be sure that every bullet or shell aimed at a
terrorist or a terrorist hideout will not hit a civilian.
Counter-terrorist warfare, not unlike a lot of the combat in World War II, is
messy and lots of people, not all of them bad guys, are inevitably going to
get hurt. But the fact that both Israel and the United States go out of their
way to avoid civilian casualties in a way that the Allies of 60 years ago would
not have dreamed of doing hasn't stopped critics from making hyped up and
false allegations of "war crimes."
War is organized barbarity, but some wars are just. The failure of Americans
to live up at all times to what the Israelis call a concept of "purity of
arms," doesn't undermine the morality of America's purpose today anymore than the
firebombing of German cities did decades ago.
The men and women who currently defend the freedom of both the United States
and Israel deserve to be held accountable, but nothing they do should diminish
the justice of the purpose of their struggle.
The reason we honor those who fought the Nazis is not because they were all
paragons of virtue, but because the larger cause they served was moral. When we
lose sight of that we forget the most important lessons about that war and
all those that followed.