Fiction is easy to change. Sure, you described something one way, but you can always change your mind to make the past fit better into the present. Sometimes – especially in the wild worlds of comic books or science fiction – we call this retroactive continuity, or retconning. If a character is brought back from the dead, because he didn’t really die after all, that’s retconning. When Han Solo shot first in the original cut of “Star Wars” but Greedo shot first in the special edition version released decades later, that is retconning in order to make Han more purely heroic.
What does this have to do with war? Well, hawks continually attempt to retcon real life. One thing about war which can be retconned easily is its motivations. Any war fought by the good guy USA can be retconned into necessary and noble as long as you remove all the past inconsistencies and gray areas.
Last week was the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. Slavery was one of the worst things ever done by the US. What was wrong with fighting a war to stop it then? Well, the North was not motivated by that. The South may have wanted the right to keep their slave states, and to spread the peculiar institution further. But the badness of the Confederate States doesn’t magically mean that the North nobly fought to rescue their fellow men and women who were in bondage. Nor does it mean that individual soldiers in the South weren’t fighting for a very basic, undeniable reason: an invading army was in their backyard.
Compared to later wars, the Civil War had fewer atrocities committed against civilian populations. However, General Sherman’s march was a grim exception. Similarly horrifying was the treatment of prisoners of war who were housed in Andersonville in the south, and places like Elmira in the north.
The cause of the Civil War is debated even now. But it still often feels as if the clash is between people downplaying the horror of chattel slavery and those downplaying a war which killed 620,000 men. (Not to mention the civil liberties outages which included conscription, a removal of habeas corpus, and the arrest of newspaper editors and dissidents – and that’s just in the north.) To debate the need for the war, or to critique the brutality of the North is to imply that slavery was not such a big deal. This is unfair, and it’s part of the retconning of wars. That War Between the States was fought, and slavery was abolished, therefore the war had to be fought. Every one of those 620,000 men needed to perish in order to stop slavery. There was no other way, simply because that is the way it happened.
That’s not true. Nor is it true that World War II had to happen just so in order to stop Hitler’s monstrous rampage through Europe. We ask now, why would you need to stop Hitler? Well, to save the Romani, the disabled, the gays, and the Jews of Europe from extermination. That is indeed a noble goal. Only – if the motivation of the Allies had been to save the Jews, why did the US admit fewer immigrants from the countries Hitler was taking over than were legally allowed during the war years? Why did the British fail to pull the trigger on Operation Foxley, a plot to assassinate Hitler? And when an alliance with Josef Stalin was vital to the Allied victory, how much of a moral high ground did they have? Some? Perhaps. As much as Hollywood’s grand stories of GI Joe saving the day suggest? No.
This is not to say that we know a half dozen Raoul Wallenbergs could have prevented the Holocaust, or that bombing the railroads to Auschwitz would have been better, or that killing Hitler would have solved everything. The warmonger is the one with infinite arrogance. He knows history and inevitability. (And he never seems concerned that in reality, you cannot retcon characters back to life.)
Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapon attack on the Kurds was a rallying cry for the Western World. The fact that during the Iraq-Iran war, the US helped Iraq use chemical weapons on Iran isn’t mentioned very often. That might confuse the narrative of who is good and who is the Satan of the moment. And of course, the more we learn about the 2003 War in Iraq, the more criminal it sounds. The US was saving the Iraqis from their own Hitler, right? No, they were searching for WMDs. But that was saving the whole world! And no, the weapons weren’t there, but at least Saddam is out of the way.
Somehow, though the body count for the Iraq War has now hit at least one million, the US has no blot on its moral character. The war was fought for very good reasons, even if there were some rough parts. Or, it was a good war, it just wasn’t fought long enough or hard enough. Anything awful done in war, or any misguided war can be retconned into greatness. The US being the land of the free makes that so much easier. The US is the hero. They would never have shot first. And if they did, it was necessary. Everyone loves the charming anti-hero, right?
What’s the point of all this? Only that warmongers and even would-be-objective historians constantly act as if history is inevitable. Who can dare to imagine what might have happened without wars which, in their bumbling way, abolished slavery or killed Hitler? But we must imagine it. Because next time – this time, against ISIS – the war will be just as essential. And so will the atrocities that come with every war. And there will be no other way to stop a monster, or prevent a massacre, so bombs, drones, and soldiers it has to be.
Soon after the war, all that was done wrong in service of that task will be forgotten. So will the fact that you cannot retcon the dead back to life. All that matters was the war had to happen. And the nobility of its goal washes backwards over history until magazine pieces, and books, and the brightest minds all say, yes, we fought for the best possible reasons. And no, none of those dead innocents can sully how right it was – how necessary.