June 1, 2004

by Joe Sobran

     I've always revered old men. America's youth-worship 
has always struck me as silly, and its neglect of old 
people is everyone's loss. Saner societies realize that 
the wisdom of their ancient members is precious.

     But for that reason, I'm put off by all this raving 
about World War II veterans as "the greatest generation." 
The survivors among them are old now, but during that war 
they were young. And it's not as if they had any choice. 
They did what they were told, like the young men they 
fought against, with little comprehension of the big 
picture. Are we to think they all pondered the merits of 
the war, and independently arrived at the same 
conclusion? Or did they merely obey the state en masse, 
just as Japanese and German boys did?

     What is really being glorified is not the veteran, 
but the war itself. It was a war most Americans at the 
time wanted to stay out of, and rightly so; but Franklin 
Roosevelt did all he could to involve us anyway, 
provoking the Germans and Japanese at every opportunity.

     Yes, the United States won. It gained a global 
empire and nuclear weapons, but was unable to control the 
genie that had been released. The government became far 
bigger than ever, fantastically different from the modest 
federation designed by its Founders; militaristic and 
bureaucratic habits became second nature to Americans, 
who have lost all sense of proportion about themselves 
and are baffled and irritated by the inevitable result: 
anti-Americanism around the world.

     It's not that Americans are especially wicked; it's 
just that power has severely damaged their capacity for 
objectivity about themselves, as witness President Bush's 
identification of America with invincible virtue. That 
attitude is a legacy of the total victory of World 
War II. It's what the Greeks called hubris. No wonder 
people around the world are rejoicing at our failure in 

     Those who call World War II "the good war" love to 
recall the alliance between Roosevelt and Winston 
Churchill. Actually, the two men disliked each other. 
Roosevelt despised the British Empire; he saw the Soviet 
Union as America's postwar partner in ruling the world, 
and he much preferred Joseph Stalin to Churchill. At the 
Tehran and Yalta conferences, he enjoyed amusing Stalin 
by slighting Churchill. For the wary Stalin, Roosevelt 
was a pleasant surprise, easy to manipulate.

     Stalin too emerged from the war -- "the Great 
Patriotic War," as he dubbed it -- with a greatly 
enlarged empire. Soon he also had nuclear weapons. He 
never said he had conquered the countries of Eastern 
Europe; no, they had been "liberated."

     Sound familiar? You have to wonder whether Bush 
realizes he is echoing Soviet rhetoric when he calls Iraq 
"liberated" by an American invasion and occupation. 
Probably not; he lacks Stalin's mordant irony about 

     Nostalgia for World War II springs from the yearning 
to be able to utter simplistic propaganda with a straight 
face. Bush can do it, and he strikes a chord with people 
who acclaim "moral clarity" and reject what they term 
"moral equivalence." War demands this mindset, in which 
one's own side represents pure goodness and the enemy 
pure evil, beyond human sympathy.

     In wartime, hatred becomes mandatory; neutrality is 
impermissible, a cowardly refusal to choose between good 
and evil. Thoughtful people with humane reservations 
about the war are apt to find their loyalty suspect, or 
to be branded as traitors, whose very doubts, if 
expressed, lend aid and comfort to the enemy. Even the 
line between the soldier and the civilian may be erased, 
as when Bush is called "our commander in chief," when, 
properly speaking, the president is merely commander in 
chief of the armed forces. The tendency to make the 
executive a dictator is also typical of wartime. Why 
should good be "handcuffed" against evil?

     The naive view of the president as dictator is 
expressed in the common belief that Lincoln "abolished 
slavery" -- as if any president, at any time, might have 
abolished it with a stroke of the pen. The twin myths of 
Lincoln and Roosevelt as great wartime presidents serve 
to exalt the power of the U.S. Government. So does the 
myth of "the greatest generation."

     My dearest mentor, now in his eighties, missed the 
war. Long after I'd come to admire him, I learned that 
he'd been a conscientious objector. Even as a young man, 
he had done his own thinking and followed his own 
conscience. But there are no official honors for that.


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