PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
WORLD WAR II ANALOGY POSES DANGER FOR BUSH
With Election Day less than a year away, President George W. Bush must justify
something most Americans hate: a seemingly endless string of American casualties
on foreign soil.
No doubt, the president will argue that we must risk American lives in Iraq
to bring our democratic way of life to a once-enslaved nation. He will proclaim
that we are doing once again what the "greatest generation" did during World
War II. He will tell us that the WW II generation became the greatest because
it understood so well the stark difference between our democratic mode of self-governance
and the evils of totalitarianism.
But the popular memory of the WW II era does not match the reality of that
time. If Bush campaign strategists take a careful look at the United States
as it was sixty years ago, they should see trouble ahead.
During WW II, poet Randall Jarrell estimated that "99 of 100 people in the
army" hadn’t "the faintest idea" what the war was about. Journalist Robert Sherrod
wrote that "the Marines didn’t know what to believe in." The young playwright
Arthur Miller remarked on "the near absence of any comprehension of what Nazism
meant." Commentator Dwight Macdonald called the war simply "the maximum of physical
devastation accompanied by the minimum of human meaning."
An official survey of Army Air Corpsmen in 1944 confirmed these impressions.
A top Air Corps official explained that there was "very little idealism … not
much willingness to discuss what we are fighting for."
If President Bush’s strategists look to World War II for a political lesson,
they’ll not find Americans who gave their lives for foreigners’ political freedom.
Instead, they’ll find Americans who were willing to sacrifice only when they
felt personally endangered.
The New York Times reported that the typical soldier simply thought that
"the war must be finished quickly so that he can return to take up his life
where he left it." Interviewing soldiers at the front, reporter John Hersey
found that they "usually talked about creature comforts, secure routines, even
affluence." One GI, answering Hersey’s inquiry as to why he was fighting, gave
the immortal reply: "Jesus, what I’d give for a piece of blueberry pie."
"Pie was a symbol of home," Hersey added. Most historians now agree
that, during the war, civilians as well as soldiers wanted to win as quickly
as possible in order to return to ordinary life in the safety of secure homes.
The challenge to Mr. Bush is to convince Americans that their fighting forces
must risk death in Iraq to preserve our security here at home, our right to
eat blueberry pie.
During the Cold war, Americans proved that they could support a war for ideological
reasons. The story of World War II as a battle to the death between opposed
political systems took hold in public discourse only in the late 1940s, after
the Cold War had begun. It was far easier to commit the nation to a war against
Soviet communism if communist totalitarians were depicted as the precise equivalent
of German fascist totalitarians.
But the cold war was never aimed primarily at freeing foreign masses enslaved
by Red tyrants. It was seen almost everywhere as a war of containment to prevent
those tyrants from taking away our own freedom. When the Cold War turned hot,
as in Korea and Vietnam, the public showed distinctly limited patience for U.S.
casualties and virtually no interest in bringing freedom to North Korea or North
The evidence of history is that Americans have little desire to bring freedom
to foreign nations if the risks to them and their military forces are more than
minimal. As long as our young men and women are being killed and maimed in Iraq,
appeals to the mythic image of "the greatest generation" may stir the voters,
but not nearly enough to give Mr. Bush the margin of victory.
The Bush campaign can count on public support for its Iraq policies only
if the public is convinced that America itself was directly threatened by Saddam
Hussein, Credible evidence that Saddam’s regime had weapons of mass destruction
or links to Al Qaeda would help immensely. It would suggest that our own security
might be endangered if U.S. troops were to leave Iraq. It would lend substance
to the administration’s claim that further sacrifice is worthwhile. But the
likelihood that such evidence will appear is rapidly evaporating. Mr. Bush’s
hope of running as a popular war president is fading fast.
In this respect, as in so many others, the president is falling victim to
over-confidence. With no game plan beyond chasing Saddam from power, the taste
of victory may turn bitter. Defeat in the November election would be the crowning
irony of his war and his presidency.