May 8th will mark the 70th Anniversary of the German Surrender to Allied Forces, VE Day, with the Russians celebrating a day later. The Kremlin’s victory celebration has regained a decidedly ominous timbre with the renewed tensions between Russia and Western Europe, marking another anniversary: the rough 70th anniversary of the origin of the Cold War.
The initial drawing of the Iron Curtain has no fixed date; sometimes it is dated to tensions over German federation issue in 1946, sometimes to the Berlin crisis of 1948, or the first successful test of a Soviet atomic weapon in 1949. Precise concerns over the nature of the peace won by May 8th, 1945 were, publicly at least, temporarily in suspension as both Russia and the Western Allies turned their attention to the final defeat of Japan, which would come after the first use of atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Still, the tensions, treated at conferences in Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam, were there, and history proved the pieces were shifting into new, limited wars of containing Communism. To this day many Americans define what was, in truth, the transition from a hot war into a cold one as a quiet “peacetime”, which lasted until the outbreak of hostilities in Korea in 1950, even though violence rocked the world from Ukraine to China, limited though US engagement was. Yet, the big war was over and neatly tied up.
In the United States, World War II as a historical memory in the American mainstream is entering into new waters on after a long period of unquestioned fixation as “the good war”. This vision of the war always had cracks in moral and social history: the first and offensive use of the atomic bomb worried moralists from the minute of its use to this day. There was also the issue of Japanese-American internment, which became an extremely uncomfortable subject in the light of similar camps used by our totalitarian enemies. There was also racial segregation in the ranks, even down to the blood used for transfusions by Army doctors, and the horrendous racial unrest unleashed in the Zoot Suit Riots. Yet all of that was buried in the familiar terms: Rosie the Riveter, “The Greatest Generation”, “Righteous Might”, and “Absolute Victory”, and in the image of the Sailor Kissing the Nurse on VJ Day (which itself turned out to be not as nice on second reflection).
The war’s unimpeachable reputation, in the main, rested on the sacrifice it demanded of the world’s population as a whole: directly or indirectly through combat fatality, starvation, extermination, and pestilence, the war killed somewhere between 50 and 80 million people. In the United States, the number is somewhere near 420,000 casualties, America mostly was spared the large scale attacks on civilian centers which was a deliberate strategy in its own war of attrition against Japan and Germany. 420,000 combat losses would be the lion’s share of the current United States Army, and represents the second largest bloodletting after the American Civil War. 420,000 men in four years represented some .32% of the population in total.
Such fatalities were the result of a war with ambitious aims: the decisive defeat and dismantling of three nations-in-arms. Military scholars came to see the mass mobilization of American resources and manpower for the cause of completely overthrowing an opponent and totally demolishing a foreign threat to be a central tenant of a distinctly American Way of War, which otherwise shunned large armies and extensive foreign commitments in peacetime. When Americans after the First World War sang George M. Cohan’s song Over There! they could take the cue provided in the final line:
“And we won’t come back, till it’s over over there!”
This was an approach where American ingenuity and spirit of righteous might overcame our lack of perpetual Spartan regimentation and centralized control of the means of production for the purpose of war-making. That spirit to arise to the era’s great challenge to western democracy, “the biggest thing that man has ever done” as Woody Guthrie put it, is still held as an expression of American culture at its purest and best(much like the British “Spirit of the Blitz”) , with the mass mobilization of persons of all stripes and colors as individual tools of our collective will to preserve liberty and democracy abroad.
Yet this anniversary is beginning to sound off a little differently. For one, the Greatest Generation is increasingly passing away from us. The reverence Americans generally have for them is undiminished, but now, with the narrative more free to posterity, there is a greater awareness of the real ugliness of “the good war”, reflected in the differences between the moral ambiguities and acts of dirt-encrusted savagery present in recent film and television depictions like Fury and The Pacific and the old rough and tumble, but ultimately morally-grounded, characters of The Longest Day and Sands of Iwo Jima. The chaos of the European war’s final days, the setting of Fury, is one more familiar to a modern American audience from the news of today: here are child insurgents with rocket launchers, sudden ambushes from ragged enemies, long lines of refugees, and soldiers in an army of occupation facing dire circumstances in a war they are seemingly winning, but are also unprepared for at the same time. This is the ragged end of unlimited war; conquest through slow, bitter attrition.
And perhaps too, that is why the world depicted in Fury is more real to our eyes now then the cheerful “Best Days of Our Lives” films of yesteryear, because it seemingly has no end. VE Day did not send all of America’s troops back home, and our forces, while not to be deemed “forces of occupation” as then, remain in Germany, Japan, and Italy. Peacetime was something of an illusion, save that after 1945 American never again turned its entire weight to the enterprise of war. Our closing engagements in 1945 quickly became the twilight struggle of the Cold War, a period in which the threat of conflict across the globe between two hegemonic blocks was tempered by the fear that their weapons might end life as we knew it. The art of politics became the art of deferring the apocalypse for another day while maintaining both a balance of influences in the border regions and domestic tranquility by relying on biased selective service system, keeping factories making cars and consumable media, and making sure oil and food were cheap, desirable, and plentiful.
Even when the Soviet threat abated in 1992, the interest in maintaining the global commons and markets which bolstered America’s global economy kept the United States engaged across the world, spending more and finding more wicked local problems than could be adequately addressed without unbalancing the unique economic circumstances that maintained our freedom of intervene without having to, again, call up the entirety of a generation or introduce additional taxes.
Offsetting the costs of our grand strategy is hard in a time when the government rancor against overspending is so knee-jerk. No one wants to spend more on defense if it would mean having to burden the public debt more than it has already, but the calls to arms across our supposedly global sphere of influence are now confronting America with two choices: retrenchment or retreat. There may be other ways, and the military has been experimenting with offset concepts, but the vision offered us by political bodies has increasingly become fogged between “nationbuilding here at home” and exceptionalism by the sword. Somewhere in between, the expensive and exhausting art of deterrence seems to present no answer to public exasperation, especially as old problems in Europe are re-emerging, the Middle East’s remain constant, and East Asia’s are blossoming.
VE Day’s 70th anniversary, coming one year before the next presidential election, is the first anniversary since the War that has seen the serious political resurrection of the isolationists, the old conservative foreign policy logic of George Washington when he advised against foreign commitments. While the 1990s did see a personnel and budget reduction from the Reagan-era military spending boost, there was still an active interest, carried through to now, in the use of American forces for the purpose of defending (and spreading) democracy and humanitarian interests abroad.
What we are seeing now is the return of conservatism in its ancient sense, the cynical calculations of realist philosophy which preach a disinterest in other state’s affairs and any role in international arbitration save to challenge a direct threat to American citizens. The middle-of-the-road “don’t do stupid shit” approach still has too many price tags, both fiscally and morally, for fringe movements on both sides of the aisle, and it is also a nexus for criticism because it seems to have no narrative or ideological structure which suits either Wilson or Henry Cabot Lodge.
The re-emergence of the conservative realist element of American foreign policy was made inevitable by American experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now is being championed as a means to fiscal improvement post-recession. This course, championed by Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders, argues for the massive draw-down of America’s security apparatus to pre-World War II levels in order to both force the military to match modest foreign policy aims and channel that money to domestic good, by private or public means. The forces left will be enough to defend vital interests, but not to be so large as to encourage the late style of unilateral interventionism, the “chickenhawk nation” syndrome described by James Fallows.
Those who insist our forward posture is essential for the America’s continued security now contend with a nation which distrusts the world’s chaos and seeks balm for our own. While the foreign policy conservatives are perhaps viewed as radicals in their parties, their message is not without an audience among voters who feel that other nation’s problems are inherently not ours to solve. This, perhaps, is truer to the American Way of War as it used to be understood, a natural isolationism bolstered by docile neighbors and two wide oceans. So too is a weariness and skepticism about trigger-happy politicians and the intentions of the people we are supposed to be helping, neither one of which is particularly new either. As far back as the Korean War, American soldiers sang:
“Congress sent a tour around/And they loaded up with Scotch/
While they were really living/we had 40’s up the crotch
They cried “Let’s Kill the Bastards!/Let’s Drive Em to their knees/
But there weren’t Congressmen/In the list of Casualties”
And recent, well observed, criticisms of the Iraqi government’s rampant corruption and parochialism, reminiscent of South Vietnam’s, have turned many Americans against the idea that other nations can really be helped by American forces and money, and whether they deserve any resources at all.
Yet, in such an interconnected world and global economy, the world America had no small part in building and financing because of the events of 70 years ago, is such a return possible? Have we not to recognize and to own the world we have built? Can what we have built up to prevent nuclear encirclement and social-economic isolation, and are now maintaining at a high cost, be secure or regained if we were to let it go? In a world where America’s security borders have expanded and intruded into other countries to maintain the security of our imports and transit, could the average American still enjoy the same fruits of hegemony without the expensive sword of Damocles we are grasping?
For the better part of a century, American influence and intervention has propped up Israel, enabled the globalized economy, defended oil access for our economy, allowed Western Europe to maintain liberal social democracy in the face of the Red Army, suppressed revolutions and deposed governments, set up and supported international arbitrating bodies, fought brutal limited wars to preserve Asian “democracies”, and sponsored violent proxy wars. Morally hazardous might making morally hazardous right. When you put it like that, no wonder there is conservative skepticism about whether any of that was right, or was worth the cost.
The problem with breaking the tools to sustain credible threats to deter big wars and credible forces to win small ones is that it proves more expensive in flesh and money to build them up again, especially when we face better organized threats, in a short time. Ancient logic suggests that it is hard to relinquish military might; the Athenians have, in my mind, eternally told the Melians: “The Strong do as they will, and the weak suffer what they must“, and the ancient paradox of Vegetius “If you want peace, prepare for war” remains true. While we may, with nuclear weapons, be never again so weak as before 1945, this still does not mean we will be without requirement to fight wars which cannot be won with cruise missiles, or at least not without a rankled conscious and international outcry.
For all the rhetoric about restoring a conservative foreign policy of isolationism and non-interventionism, the United States has not ever been quite content to leave the world’s affairs to the world. In his book The Savage Wars of Peace, Max Boot demonstrated that American interests, if not so explicitly as after 1945, have always been advanced by the sword, from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, and the political and economic “status quo” secured by American forces. The blatant anti-democratic political interventions across the Caribbean and the Philippines the USA made prior to 1945 were at least done quietly, but then again so were the 674 military missions US forces performed in Africa last year (besides the Ebola response). Marine Corps General Smedley Butler, an ardent anti-interventionist, concluded in 1932 that “War is a racket…I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle- man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.”
This anniversary ought make us recall, likewise, what war’s costs can be when early escalation goes unchecked. Foreign policy conservatives now agree with old sentiments against further intervention in any “quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.” Except those were the words of Neville Chamberlain during the Czechoslovakia Crisis, and, by abandoning bold action and with an outmoded military system, the Allies were unable to stop Western Europe from being the burial ground for many American and Allied soldiers who reclaimed it from fascism, hedge by hedge and town by town, to say nothing of millions of Soviet soldiers and partisans who perished holding down German forces on the Eastern Front.
70 years ago, America had millions of men in uniform and an economy, media, and social system which was almost totally geared for war. Americans ate rationed meals, had limitations on their gas allowances, and went to work in factories or were drafted. This was quite a different world, and the impact and costs of war were far higher to the average American. Since then, America has ended the draft, grown an obesity problem, and become gas-guzzlers of epic proportions. Much of what conservative rhetoric seeks is a restoration of our past isolationism and past habits, which in too many cases means stricter religious social observances without having to actually give up western diets and our dependence on global resources which fuel our style of living. Most Americans of military age could not meet the fitness standards of 1939, let alone 2015.
While perhaps it is true that surrendering our social and economic liberties to gain security means we deserve neither, we’ve also been very lucky as a country to have been, in our short existence, protected by oceans and by a dearth of power projecting rivals. If being practical demands realizing that it may be impossible to adequately nation-build without forces deemed too costly, a similar realization may also be that America has often paid for military and security unpreparedness in blood and treasure. If we did accept more modest foreign aims, however, we would also realize that our interests now, because of how far we have marched in the past, from the Rhine to the Yalu, are very far flung. Abandoning security of these interest would, undoubtedly, expose the vulnerability of the social and economic security most Americans enjoy.
Remembering the ugliness of the past is as important as recognizing its beauties, lest we think it is easy to get something for nothing. To wish to return to the paradigm we occupied before 1945 is enticing, but will come with costs many Americans would not willingly pay. Instead, let us seek a new paradigm: a use of force with balances the considerations of intervention and public sacrifice honestly. Too much is at stake, and we must remember the 420,000 Americans who remain forever the youngest of that Greatest Generation, to continue to view strategy and our role in the world as a zero-sum game for the benefit of domestic politics.