Even Americans who detest war and recognize that nearly every war is the product of mendacious, power-hungry political leaders generally make an exception for World War II, the so-called Good War. They believe that the Americans fought for an entirely good and proper cause, that they fought only after having been attacked without provocation, that their enemies were vile monsters, and that their victory made the world a better and more hopeful place for all mankind. In short, they believe in a myth. Perhaps they do so in part because so many of those who composed the so-called Greatest Generation had engaged personally in the war and needed a way to understand their involvement and to forgive themselves for what they had done or witnessed their comrades doing without objection. In any event, their actual actions in that war, which contrast starkly with the story line of the prevailing myth, might well teach valuable lessons to Americans today, as they ponder the meaning of atrocities such as those committed by U.S. soldiers, airmen, and Marines at Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, and Haditha, among many other places in Iraq yet to receive comparable publicity.
After “forty months of war duty and five major battles” in which Edgar L. Jones served as “an ambulance driver, a merchant seaman, an Army historian, and a war correspondent,” he wrote an article titled “One War Is Enough” for the February 1946 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Some of the actions he described in that article may come as a shock to many readers today; they’re not the sort of actions John Wayne was taking in all those postwar movies about World War II. Yet, over the years, many soldier-memoirists, such as Paul Fussell, William Manchester, and E. B. Sledge, and many historians, such as Michael C. C. Adams, John W. Dower, and Gerald F. Linderman, have confirmed them. The text that follows is excerpted verbatim from Jones’s article.
We Americans have the dangerous tendency in our international thinking to take a holier-than-thou attitude toward other nations. We consider ourselves to be more noble and decent than other peoples, and consequently in a better position to decide what is right and wrong in the world. What kind of war do civilians suppose we fought, anyway? We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers. We topped off our saturation bombing and burning of enemy civilians by dropping atomic bombs on two nearly defenseless cities, thereby setting an all-time record for instantaneous mass slaughter.
As victors we are privileged to try our defeated opponents for their crimes against humanity; but we should be realistic enough to appreciate that if we were on trial for breaking international laws, we should be found guilty on a dozen counts. We fought a dishonorable war, because morality had a low priority in battle. The tougher the fighting, the less room for decency, and in Pacific contests we saw mankind reach the blackest depths of bestiality.
Not every American soldier, or even one per cent of our troops, deliberately committed unwarranted atrocities, and the same might be said for the Germans and Japanese. The exigencies of war necessitated many so-called crimes, and the bulk of the rest could be blamed on the mental distortion which war produced. But we publicized every inhuman act of our opponents and censored any recognition of our own moral frailty in moments of desperation.
I have asked fighting men, for instance, why they — or actually, why we — regulated flame-throwers in such a way that enemy soldiers were set afire, to die slowly and painfully, rather than killed outright with a full blast of burning oil. Was it because they hated the enemy so thoroughly? The answer was invariably, "No, we don’t hate those poor bastards particularly; we just hate the whole goddam mess and have to take it out on somebody." Possibly for the same reason, we mutilated the bodies of enemy dead, cutting off their ears and kicking out their gold teeth for souvenirs, and buried them with their testicles in their mouths, but such flagrant violations of all moral codes reach into still-unexplored realms of battle psychology.
It is not my intention either to excuse our late opponents or to discredit our own fighting men. I do, however, believe that all of us, not just the battle-enlightened GI’s, should fully understand the horror and degradation of war before talking so casually of another one. War does horrible things to men, our own sons included. It demands the worst of a person and pays off in brutality and maladjustment. It has become so mechanical, inhuman, and crassly destructive that men lose all sense of personal responsibility for their actions. They fight without compassion, because that is the only way to fight a total war. . . .
Peter Bowman summed up our victory to date in Beach Red when he wrote, "Battle doesn’t determine who is right. Only who is left." We destroyed fascists, not fascism; men, not ideas. Our triumphs did not serve as evidence that democracy is best for the world, any more than Russian victories proved that communism is an ideal system for all mankind. Only through our peacetime efforts to abolish war and bring a larger measure of freedom and security to all peoples can we reveal to others that we are any better than our defeated opponents.
Today we stand on trial — we are either for peace or for war, and the rest of the world is prepared to move with us or against us. The burden of proof is on us; and our willingness to make peace, not our capacity to wage war, is the true measure of our good-neighborliness.
Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. His most recent book is Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy. He is also the author of Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 and Against Leviathan.