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Jason Fritz at Ink Spots has an excellent review up of Anthony Beevor’s new single-volume history of World War II. I haven’t read the work (although Fritz’s review has moved it further up my to-read list), but the post raises some excellent points about how we view World War II which have vital implications for today. First, Fritz praises Beevor for attempting to highlight the political and strategic complexity of the conflict:
As a big-picture example, the United States did not just face a Pacific versus Europe resource competition. The United States faced resource competition between Stillwell’s command supporting the Chinese Nationalists, MacArthur’s forces, Halsey’s forces, the preparation for an invasion of western France, operations in North Africa and then Italy, strategic bombing campaigns on both sides, and Lend-Lease to many a slew of locations. To compound this, American leaders needed to maintain support for the war at home and keep the Alliance together while trying to shape the post-war world through a political minefield of communists, socialists, fascists, colonialists, revolutionaries, and democratists. All while trying to actually win the war. If you consider the number of facets and decisions required in this complex world, multiply these considerations by the same problems with which all of the other Allies (and enemies) were forced to contend. The result is an exponentially large equation to determine the outcomes of a world in flux moving at the speed of a tank.
We frequently hear in foreign policy circles that the 21st century’s geopolitics is vastly more complex than that of the 20th, particularly with reference to the relative simplicity of great power politics in a state system or the simple strategic viewpoints which sufficed for the clash of bipolar blocs, along with changing trends in economics, technology, and society. Yet looking at WWII and its preceding decades show a world’s complexity that would be mind-boggling even to the sharpest, forward-looking policymakers and strategists today.
World War II featured a system with a much more pronounced multi-polarity, both diplomatically and ideologically, and with a patchwork of sub-state party systems, insurgents, and factions of all kinds attempting to seize control of state machinery and the mass populace. The political tumult of 1930s Japan, with the vying Imperial Way and Control Factions seeking influence over the military and the state generally, emerged from a context of ideological, social, and political discord and actual false flags and outright coup attempts puts today’s grappling with modern political transitions in some perspective. Even in amidst the great power clash of WWII, non-state actors with obscure ideologies could exert profound effect. Take for instance Darlan’s assassination at the hands of a French Resistance cell led by an ultraconservative with monarchist and integral nationalist tendencies.
While this world was undoubtedly different, dismissing it as irreconcilably simpler in a geopolitical sense risks privileging a post-hoc teleology. Despite the growth and change in populations, technologies, and economies, making the case for a policy-relevant epochal great is likely to obscure a far greater deal more than it reveals. While tacticians and students of operational art and military strategy frequently plumb the depths of World War II, the policy planning, diplomacy, and general foreign policy issues of the period frequently appear as so beholden to antiquity as to be irrelevant, or so straightforward as to become unexamined mantras.
That brings us to the next issue, which is the problematic “good war” narrative of World War II. As Fritz explains:
It is important to note that Beevor does not suggest that World War II was an unjust war, he in fact says that is (from the Allied perspective, naturally), but rather that we should remove our rosy glasses on the West’s activities during the war and understand analysis of the war and its events for what they are and why “good” is not a descriptor of this war. He describes the war as “so rich a source for the study of dilemmas, individual and mass tragedy, the corruption of power politics, ideological hypocrisy, the egomania of commanders, betrayal, perversity, self-sacrifice, unbelievable sadism and unpredictable compassion.”
The historical lessons of World War II are far too often transmuted and echoed through the experiences of the Cold War and the War on Terror. While a narrative of the U.S. grappling with ideologically-extreme foes provides a satisfying continuity to the past three quarters of a century, the historical lessons most often drawn from WWII often seem simplistic in the extreme.
There is the perpetual invocation of Pearl Harbor, without adequate consideration for the diplomatic and domestic political maneuvering, sanctions, and U.S. policy decisions, and Japanese provocations and reactions, which preceded war’s outbreak (December 7th was, as Gaddis has noted, hardly a surprise in the way 9/11 was). There is the even more frequent agonizing over Munich, appeasement and the importance of prevention, without regard for the diplomatic issues, the military unpreparedness for launching an efficacious attack on Germany, or the possibility that an unpopular and hastily-conceived war might have brought pro-Axis or anti-war politicians greater influence by peaceful means in their home countries.
What is rarely invoked in public policy discourse is equally telling. The avoidance or ignorance of how the European theater of the war, in brute material and human terms, was actually won is politically and rhetorically understandable but historically incomprehensible. The messy deals and compromises of interwar and World War II era are uncomfortable, but potentially illuminating to those who seek to put “the study of dilemmas” into practice in ways the good war narrative, useful for polemical nostalgia, can never be.
The myriad difficulties of waging World War II that Fritz earlier outlined culminated in human tragedy and moral compromise, which challenges both the simple label of the “good war,” and for today, demands we scrutinize our contemporary context rather than reinforcing the whitewashed symbols and credos of the mythologized past. In recognizing the complexity of World War II, we not only refine our historical understanding, but also recognize relevance of its lessons at the highest levels of strategy, policy, and politics without resort to tired clichés.