World War II: “What does it say about us?”

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If you visit my modest site here regularly, you know I write novels revolving around young Americans abroad in the 1990s – in France in particular. Unsurprisingly, I have many French characters, one of whom is a Second World War veteran. Before heading down that literary path, as an academic I’d studied the war and its impacts on post-war Europe.

So please pardon an extremely serious – even depressing – post. For whenever American WWII involvement is cited non-chalantly in present political debates, I take notice. In this case, a former comedian (who now has a chatter show on HBO) tweeted breezily the other day that the U.S. had won WWII without resorting to torture:

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We’ll leave aside his Cold War reference. We don’t know much that happened “quietly” in “black spots” and out of sight during the Cold War. But his raising it in that manner merely demonstrates he probably has only cursory knowledge about how the West and the Soviet bloc intelligence services went at each other viciously during those years, including resorting to umbrella poisonings, and in involving themselves (and sometimes succeeding) in overthrowing unfriendly governments, and then supporting torturers within the new governments.

Let’s focus instead on asking about “us” during the Second World War, which is a conflict that in U.S. lore today is now the last “good war.” Yes, millions of Americans served honorably. Yes, they helped liberate Nazi-occupied Europe. Yes, they helped end Japanese militarism. Freedom and democracy in Europe and much of the Pacific today owes a great deal to their sacrifices and accomplishments.

However, all of that did not come about without misery and death on what is now an incomprehensible scale. Two thousand years ago the Roman Tacitus famously wrote of his countrymen, “They make a desert, and they call it peace.” It could well be said that, between 1941-1945, America helped do much the same…. to “win” that former comedian’s version of the Second World War. Just a few examples:

  • U.S. soldiers raping Frenchwomen was not nearly as rare as we all might like to think it was.
  • After entering Dachau concentration camp near war’s end, U.S. soldiers herded captured guards together and shot them:
29 April 1945. Dachau, Bavaria, Germany: This picture shows an execution of SS troops in a coalyard in the area of Dachau concentration camp during the liberation of the camp. (Public domain.)
29 April 1945. Dachau, Bavaria, Germany: This picture shows an execution of SS troops in a coalyard in the area of Dachau concentration camp during the liberation of the camp. (Public domain.)
  • There were other occasions U.S. soldiers murdered captured PoWs, as in Sicily in 1943.
  • Following the D-Day battle, U.S. Rangers at Pointe du Hoc reportedly shot dead in cold blood French civilians they believed had fought alongside, or had artillery spotted for, the Germans.
  • In the several months’ long pre-D-Day air campaign that sought to hamper German movement by bombing roads and railways in German-occupied France, it is believed “we” may have also killed some 14,000 French civilians.
  • President Roosevelt oversaw years of carpet-bombings of Germany and Japan, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians – including children.
  • President Truman ordered two atomic bombs dropped on cities full of Japanese non-combatants – including children.

Some of us either want us to think, or actually vaguely believe that, the U.S. fought WWII without engaging in “dirty” behavior – as if it were, say, a John Wayne movie. But the problem is even a “John Wayne” movie isn’t even always a “John Wayne” movie. In The Longest Day, the 1962 blockbuster about D-Day starring Wayne among a “cast of thousands,” note that in a brief scene a soldier behind Omaha Beach guns down a group of surrendering Germans…. at least one of whom clearly has his hands up.

Further thoughts?

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