Last week I urged you all to challenge the “accepted narrative” of World War II, to come up with things you used to believe about the war that no longer hold water.
I received some great answers! Some of you used to think the western Allies won the war all by themselves and tended to downplay the massive contributions of the Soviet Union. Others used to believe that strategic bombing was a fairly low-cost and easy way of bringing Germany to its knees. Still others now question the notion that the veterans who returned after 1945 slid back into their civilian lives smoothly and easily and had little trouble readjusting. And some of you used to think that most Frenchmen fought in the Resistance.
Today, informed students of the war would question each and every one of these once-accepted “truths.” The point is not to laugh at how naïve we once were, or to enjoy a cheap laugh at the expense of the French, but merely to point out that the “narrative” about a given event has a way of hardening early on, and can be very difficult to break.
It is easy to see how it happens. With regards to the “Missing Soviet” narrative, for example, the 1950s saw the Cold War and U.S. anti-communism in full flower, and few people were in much of a mood to credit Stalin with helping to defeat Hitler, or to recall the in-convenient truth that just a few short years ago Washington and Moscow had been on the same side.
Since you were all so forthcoming with your confessions, let me give one of my own, another part of the traditional narrative that I once swallowed whole, but no longer believe. It is the notion of World War II as “the great crusade.” General Eisenhower enshrined the idea in the title to his memoirs (Crusade in Europe), and by and large it’s still the way we perceive the war.
Calling it a “crusade” sets a high bar. A crusade is, after all, a consecrated undertaking. The warrior embarks on the adventure not for power or personal aggrandizement, but rather because it is God’s will. He willingly risks life and limb for a higher cause; indeed, he follows Christ on the “way of the cross,” the literal meaning of the term.
Certainly, no sane person will deny that beating Hitler was the classic definition of A Good Thing. But if U.S. participation in the war was a “crusade” against evil, we certainly took our time getting involved. World War II lasted for seven campaigning seasons from 1939 to 1945, inclusive, and American forces missed the first three. Indeed, Germany’s best chance at victory had probably come and gone before U.S. troops even joined the fighting. When we finally got into World War II, it wasn’t by choice, which would seem to be one prerequisite for a “crusade,” but because we got bombed (by the Japanese) and had war declared upon us (by the Germans). And once we did get involved, military necessity impelled us to do a lot of very unpleasant things: indiscriminate use of firepower, massive aerial bombing of densely populated urban areas, and—in the most truly horrific expression of war’s destructive power—even a couple of atomic bombs.
I’m not trying to second-guess strategic decisions that were made under pressure a long time ago or to try our forebears by our supposedly more “enlightened” modern standards. I know why we dropped the atom bomb; I explain it to my students all the time. It’s just that the longer I study World War II the more I realize how horrible it was, and I’m uncomfortable dignifying anything that horrible as a “crusade.”
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