September 1 was the 75th anniversary of the long-considered start of World War II. The Nazis and the Soviets put aside their griping long enough to hungrily divide and conquer Poland, and the European theater proceeded from there.
The potential for smaller conflicts to turn into monstrous ones the world over has lately provoked comparisons to World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. But in retrospect, and only arguably in reality, those conflicts mean different things now. Some kind of ideological standoff with the Soviet Union might always have happened, but the proxy wars in Vietnam and Korea, and the CIA-creeping in Iran and South and Central America were not necessary. World War I was the mistake that gave us the inevitable Second World War. But that war with its 60 million dead, was not only unstoppable, but right.
Adolph Hitler is the high water mark of evil for a reason. It’s easy to endorse violence to stop his domination of Europe and his attempted annihilation of the Jews (not to mention Slavs, Romani, the disabled, gays, and other groups not worthy of life). Assassination – which, admittedly had its own shoddy track record, especially when done by outside actors – was plotted by the British, and then never followed through on. Hitler himself used his bewildering luck in surviving internal assassination attempts to further prop up his glorious myth. In the most famous – and frustrating – attempt, the heroic Claus von Stauffenberg and his fellow schemers failed in their July 20 plot, and were shot for their trouble.
There are serious risks to assassination in terms of power vacuums and unpredictable results. And President Barack Obama’s drone wars arguably qualified as such, but they managed to kill 2400 people, many of whom were not terrorists. (Considering that the Obama administration targeted people whose names weren’t even known, and then classified males of the appropriate age who were in a suspicious geographical location as insurgents without confirming it, yes, the drone strikes give assassinations a bad name.) On the other hand, the acceptability of civilian casualties and the vague sense that killing a ruthless dictator is underhanded and "ungentlemanly" is a telling sign of the sickness of the world.
This brings us to the contradiction of World War II – the good, necessary war where the Allies would have been savages compared to anyone except Hitler’s Germany and Imperial Japan. Press people – and believe me, I have, usually in the form of fierce Twitter debates – and they might grudgingly admit that the number of deaths caused by the Allies were regrettably high. Some people don’t even bother to express this sentiment, since the blame for the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki lies at the feet of the German and Japanese governments. To regret too much that the good guys caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians is to rewrite the war – changing it from black and white, or sepia, into full color gore.
As in any other war, interventionists are damned sure that had anything been different, it would have been worse (unless they are suggesting the war be fought more brutally, as they do with Vietnam). It is not downplaying the horror of Hitler to ask whether the bombings were justified, or are something that a group of countries professing to be the good side can engage in and continue to call themselves that. The motivation for the war was, by the way, not remotely related to saving the Jews of Europe. Had it been, perhaps the FDR administration would have let in more than the ten percent of the allowed immigration quota. Or, the passengers aboard the St. Louis would have been allowed to disembark in Florida, and not been sent back – for most of them – to their deaths in Europe. By 1944, the US government established the War Refugee Board, which among other worthwhile pursuits, actually partially underwrote Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg’s heroics in Budapest. Too little, too late, though. Wallenberg’s genius maneuvering saved 100,000 Hungarian Jews. He was fighting to save the innocent victims of Hitler. Now, we retcon the war and say that that was the motivation of the allies. Stopping Hitler? Sure. Saving those foreigners with their funny religion? Not a priority concern.
After arguing the point for years and years, it starts to become difficult to remember why rehashing an old war is worthwhile. Well, if Hitler is the pinnacle of evil, the actions of the Allies to fight him are also a high water mark. As long as the tactics were more brutal for the last – also justified – fight, these lesser civilian casualties are an improvement. So is Obama’s drone war an improvement over Bush’s ground wars. So that’s alright then. We’ve moved past the need to nuke whole cities – though rest assured, we really, really needed to do so at the time – and that means the world is improving.
Only, when every new dictator is Hitler, every new group are Nazis, and every new crossroads is Munich, World War II has never really left us. The good guys had concentration camps (internment camps in the US and Gulags in the USSR), punished whole cities for the sins of their leaders, and on the whole, people don’t see anything wrong with that. If it were vital to use such brutal tactics again, they would be accepted. And nobody has ever found the answer to the question: how bad are the good guys permitted to be anyway?
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.