Worshipping at the Altar of the Second World War
John M. Lane
In September 2022, the Second World War will have been over for seventy-seven years. Those who lived through the war and those who fought in it are leaving us by the thousands every day. Soon the only tangible remnant of the war will be history and our memory; in the seventy-seven years since the war ended, the issue has always been commemorating and studying that history and memory. We in the “victorious” countries, especially the United States and Britain, have turned the history and memory of the war into a “quasi-religion,” complete with its own “holy” texts, shrines, prophets, and mythology. When it comes to the Second World War, the line between fact and fiction, truth and lie has become, in many cases, blurred. subject to moral, social, and strategic factors.
The Moral Factor
In the Christmas 2020 issue of BBC History, Christianity Historian Alec Ryrie of Durham University made the case in an article entitled “Our Dangerous Devotion to the Second World War” that “the West’s enduring obsession with battle against Nazism is hampering its efforts to meet the challenges of the modern world” (Ryrie). Ryrie makes the case that as the West has become increasingly secularized, the story of the Second World War and the battle between good and evil has become the West’s new secular religion. “…There’s been a common lament from cultural conservatives that we longer have shared sacred narratives that hold our societies together: we can no longer agree on what might the greatest story ever told might be. (In a Christian, church-going society that story is the birth and life of Jesus Christ). This is supposedly, a sign of our fragmenting values. But this is not true. We do have a new shared narrative: the event that the French novelist Laurent Binet calls “our Trojan war: a landmark, a reference, a source of inexhaustible stories, a collection of epics and tragedies”. In fact, the Second World War is even more than that. It is the defining moral event of our times, the sacred story of a secular age.” (Ryrie)
When the United States joined Britain in the war against Germany in December 1941, it was portrayed as a moral crusade of good against evil from the very beginning. The Nazis were an authoritarian, racist regime that was forcibly spreading its evil poison across Europe, and eventually, the Nazis hoped, across the world. Seventy-seven years after the end of the war, we have forgotten how realistic that hope was. The Nazis had authoritarian and racist followers around the world, in every major country (including the United States and Britain). Nazi authoritarian and racist philosophies never disappeared after the war, and now in the 21st century, they are back on the march, threatening that most fragile form of government, democracy, once again.
“The Atlantic Charter of 1941, which laid the basis for the whole postwar legal and moral order, presented the war as a struggle to defend human rights – including the freedom of worship. Allied soldiers were told that they were fighting the forces of evil.” (Ryrie) Going into the war, as we will see later in this essay, most American (and British) soldiers were only interested in getting the war over as quickly as possible. A moral crusade was the farthest thing from their minds as they put on their uniforms and began training, rumors, and stories of the ghastly activity of the brutal German occupation of conquered territories and the beginnings of the Holocaust began making their way westward. On the other side of the world, what the Japanese had done, and were doing in China was already well known, especially in the United States.
Once the Western Allies reached the camps in Germany in 1945, the idea of a moral crusade came clearly into focus. What they found at Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, and other locations made it clear they indeed had embarked on a moral crusade. “Plenty of armies are told they are fighting the forces of evil. Just this once, it turned out to be true.” (Ryrie) Since the end of the war, western leaders, especially political leaders have made the profound mistake of using the Second World War moral argument to justify almost every military action or intervention that has taken place. The cost for this reckless use of history has been beyond calculation in treasure, blood, and credibility.
The Social Factor
Between 15 to 16 million Americans served in the Second World War, most never saw combat, however they did what they were expected to do. Most were born between 1917 and 1924. The average age of an American service member in the Second World War was 25-26. They had lived through and survived the Great Depression and when the war began in Europe in 1939, most hoped that the United States could avoid getting involved. When the war was forced on them by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the insanity of Hitler declaring war four days later and the gross stupidity of Mussolini going along with “Der Fuhrer; there were no great celebrations, just a quiet determination to get it over with as quickly as possible. For what will probably be the last time in United States history (the utter selfishness of 21st century America would preclude any such effort even being attempted- see my essay on “Time Travel”) a true citizens army was formed: draftees, volunteers, the poor and the rich from every ethnic and racial group (this force would be the last one that was racially segregated. The American military began full integration in 1948, becoming the only truly racially integrated institution in the United States. It has done or is attempting to do what most corporations, businesses, universities, and other American institutions only pay “lip service” to, usually out of fear of the highly probable “reverse discrimination” lawsuit.)
Americans were deployed and fought around the world. In an alliance of convenience with the British Empire and the Soviet Union against common enemies, their efforts were crucial and, in some ways, decisive to the ultimate Allied victory. After the victory, they returned home, taking advantage of the last great legislative achievement of the FDR presidency, The “GI Bill”. The results of this law changed the American economy, education “system”, transportation, and housing. In short, it completely transformed American life. (Because many of the programs were locally administered, the discrimination towards African American veterans was blatant. The result has been that the accumulation of tangible wealth, especially housing, among African Americans has consistently lagged behind the general population.)
The American veterans of the Second World War, and Americans in general, did not glorify the war or the service of veterans in it. Veterans joined groups like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign War, however the sense was that we fought and won a victory. That was enough. The military and life in it were not glorified. The reason was obvious. There were millions of veterans of the war (including the Korean War, which ended in 1953) in every walk of American life: the professions, the arts, education, business, and government. They knew what the inside of a barracks looked like. They had a common thread of kinship and experience. Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, H.W. Bush, and Reagan all served in some capacity on active duty during the Second World War. (Truman had been an artillery officer in the First World War) Eisenhower had been Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Kennedy (Harvard) and H.W. Bush (Yale)were decorated Navy combat veterans. Carter graduated from the Naval Academy and barely missed the war, going on to be a submarine officer.
Veterans cringed at the inevitable movies and television shows depicting the war. Some were quite good, most were awful. Books about the war were written and published by the hundreds. The author, the son of a Second World War veteran, was introduced to the reading and study of history through reading a lot of those books (the first, I remember, was Richard Tregaskis’ Guadalcanal Diary.) The genesis of the deification of the Second World War began during this period. By the mid-1960s, the sons of the Second World War had their own war to fight. If the communists were not stopped in Vietnam, “dominoes” would fall in Asia and around the world. Appeasement had failed in 1938 in Munich, and it would fail again, the communists needed to be confronted. Today we forget how much support there was for the Vietnam War during the first years (1965, 66, 67). The author had a map of Indochina, marking where the latest, publicized bombing raids had taken place, in his bedroom. By 1971, he would be on the ground in Vietnam, having volunteered. I had, like millions of others, internalized Churchill: We must fight on the beaches, the landing areas… we must never surrender.
The American “baby boom” generation (approximately born between 1947 and 1964) will forever be divided: especially by class, education, and who went to Vietnam. Contrary to popular belief, most of the baby boom generation did not go to college during the Vietnam War. They followed their grandparents and parents into the factories, mines, construction sites and farms of the United States. These were the people (black, white, and brown) who fought the Vietnam War. They either volunteered or were drafted by a grossly unfair selective service system. (College students were exempt). None of the “baby-boom” presidents went to Vietnam: Clinton (Georgetown/Yale), W. Bush (Yale/Harvard), and Trump (Fordham/Pennsylvania). W. Bush was in the Texas National Guard. Speaking as a Vietnam Veteran member of that generation and considering the three names just mentioned, I hope the United States has had its last “baby-boom” president.
In 1973, mandatory military service in the United States ended. As a result of Vietnam, respect for and trust in the American military reached historic lows. At this point, because of the outcome in Vietnam, the ground was now prepared for the deification of the military in general and the Second World War in particular. After 1973 and continuing to our present time in the 21st century, military service has become a “career path” or a “training opportunity” of choice. Service to country is no longer seen as obligatory. (The exception to this trend was the rush to enlist after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the one time since the Second World War where a call to national service might have worked. Instead, we were encouraged to continue shopping and visit Disneyworld.)
In our latest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about one percent of the US population has done the “heavy lifting” of sacrifice and warfare. They have dealt with the constant deployments, the injuries, the PTSD, and the deaths. For the rest of us, we just went go on with our everyday lives. We put yellow magnets on our cars, ate “Freedom” fries, flew flags, and “supported the troops.” No other sacrifice or commitment would be necessary. Unless you or a family member were there, it was a painless, sanitized war. I have concluded that this newfound reverence for the military comes from a deep uneasiness from the 99% about their role in the recent wars and the way those wars were started and conducted. This uneasiness manifests itself in a variety of ways. One is that the Military is now one of the most trusted, if not the most trusted institution in the United States. Another is the quasi-religious worship of the memory of the Second World War.
Veterans of the Second World War have never put the military on such a pedestal of worship. They knew (or know) from first-hand experience that the Military is not perfect. The Military is now incredibly isolated from the general population, for a democracy to be maintained, that isolation is an extremely dangerous situation. The overwhelming majority of Americans have no real idea of what the Military does, what Military life is like (especially members of Congress), and what the Military’s role in a democratic republic should be. The average citizen has never heard of the term “civil-military relations”: the proper relationship between the uniformed military, the elected political leadership, and the body politic of citizens in a democracy
Into 1990s and the first decades of the 21st century, the books, movies, and television shows kept coming in ever increasing numbers. The 1998 film, Saving Private Ryan, was groundbreaking in its accurate portrayal of the brutality of combat. The television series, Band of Brothers, appeared just as 9/11 occurred. It was a smash hit, as the paratroopers fought their way across Europe, crushing the Nazis as it was hoped our forces would soon crush the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Ten years later, the series, The Pacific, did not meet with the same popular reception. Maybe it was because the war on terror in Afghanistan had reached a dead-end and the “crusade” in Iraq had gone hopelessly off the rails. The lackluster performance of The Pacific is surprising when examined against the history of American attitudes about the war as it was happening. During the war, Americans paid much more attention to the Pacific War. It was seen as the American war and the hatred of the Japanese enemy was at a visceral level. That was not the case in Europe. The civilian command decision to concentrate on defeating Germany, as the most dangerous, long-term enemy, first, was not overwhelmingly popular with the military command (especially the Navy) or the public.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and D-Day is now the American “holy grail” of the Second World War. It has become the American battle, even though on D-Day itself, June 6, 1944, British Empire/Commonwealth forces outnumbered the Americans. D-Day has been called the “climactic battle of World War II”. It was not. The climactic battle of the Second World War in Europe took place in Kursk, deep inside the Soviet Union in 1943, between millions of German and Soviet troops. Was the D-Day landing and the Normandy campaign important? The answer is yes. The success of the Western Allies Northwest Europe campaign in 1944-45 prevented the Red Army from occupying all of Germany, and possibly Denmark and the Low Countries.
The Second World War… “remains the story we cannot stop telling ourselves: fiction, film, and TV circle around its carcass like vultures, and we never tire of it…My children watch the newest cinematic retellings of the war’s story transfixed and are hungry for more. As we all are.”(Ryrie)
“More” continues to arrive. The most recent “top-notch” film entries have been Dunkirk, a visually stunning epic about the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from France in 1940, (Dunkirk, along with the Battle of Britain, are the defining British moments of the Second World War, always invoked, and remembered, never to be forgotten), and Darkest Hour, brilliantly acted by Gary Oldman as Churchill, with parts that are hopelessly wrong. Churchill never rode in “the tube” and discussed strategy with ordinary citizens. The famed “we will fight” speech took place after Dunkirk, not during it. Both Dunkirk and Darkest Hour received the prestigious “Best Picture” nomination for an Academy Award.
“Dunkirk” – 2017
The network that brought you Band of Brothers and The Pacific is apparently producing a new series on the strategic bombing campaign over Germany. The audience will no doubt be huge.
The “War Fighting” and Strategic Factor
The American public (and Westerners in general) view and vision of war is the Second World War: armies fighting to victory, the battle won, the enemy clearly vanquished. The problem is this: The United States has not fought a war like that since 1945; with one exception. In 1991 Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, decided to fight Western armies in a head-to-head battle. American, British, and French forces crushed the Iraqi ground forces in a matter of days, making clear the obvious fact that fighting the Americans and the West in the open is a hopeless proposition. The way to fight the Americans and the West was use a different tactic: terror. Terrorism is the tactic used by the weak against the strong. Consequently, a war against a tactic is a hopeless proposition. The United States had to develop a new way to fight wars and the American public had to develop new way to view war. Neither has been completely successful.
After 1945, Second World war terminology entered the regular political discourse, especially as the deployment of America’s volunteer military to hotspots around the world dramatically increased (the Libyan bombing raids, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama in the 1980s, the First Gulf War, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Iraq enforcement of the “no-fly” zone” in the 1990s.) Appeasement of aggression only leads to more aggression. In 1982, the British sent practically their entire navy and substantial air and ground forces to recapture the Falkland Islands from Argentina to deter further aggression.
Re-fighting the last war is always a mistake. The American psyche has been re-fighting the Second World War since 1945: stopping aggression, rejecting appeasement, and “being strong”, and standing up for what is right morally. We call upon the “sacred” texts, prophets, and myths of a past war to guide us. They cannot do that. Right now, however, our secular faith in the righteousness and morality of the Second World War as a society is maybe all we have to unite us.
The Second World War needs to be studied. It was the most important historical event of the 20th Century. It should never be forgotten, not because history repeats itself (it does not, it occasionally rhymes), but because the war and its outcome created and shaped the world we live in today.
Ryrie, Alec. “Our Dangerous Devotion to The Second World War” BBC History Christmas 2020: 25-29.
One Reply to “Worshiping at the Altar of the Second World War”
Great Blog-Posting…YES, many of us RECITE and DO AGREE that HISTORY DOES NOT REPEAT, ITSELF!!! But, and THOUGH WAIT a SECOND; W.W.I/1914-1918, AND THEN W.W.II/1939-1945…WELL, and WOW, WHAT ABOUT THIS ONE? GREAT FORMAT…WITH W.W.II/1941-1945…1939-1945; DID and DOES SHAPE THE WORLD WE LIVE IN TODAY, and THEN SOME!!! Hopefully, The Second World War…WAS and IS; the LAST MAJOR and ANY SERIOUS CONFLICT-WAR…THAT WE WILL EVER SEE AGAIN, excluding Korea/1950-1953, Vietnam 1959-1975, Afghanistan 2001-2014, etc. Yours Aye-Brian CANUCK Murza…Killick Vison, W.W.II Naval Researcher-Published Author, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada.
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