The US empire fought numerous wars in the 20th century that ended in failure and humiliation, and the 21st century is off to a bad start. Wars in the Philippines, Korea and Vietnam War ended with stalemate and embarrassment, and our debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan have poorly-defined objectives and no foreseeable victory in sight. Ironically, the most powerful military in history has not won many wars.
But the definition of success can be blurred. Wars ending in military failure are still political and economic accomplishments for the architects who design them. Many people profit from war by looting the US treasury and by gaining access to limited resources around the world. The United States has a long history of using force to gain influence over poor nations whether any one particular war is seen as “successful” or not.
Yet no matter how success is defined, no war is seen as more “successful” and “just” than the United States’ involvement in World War II. Unlike many other wars, the benefits of winning it outweighed the cost. Justification comes from the elimination of totalitarianism and Nazism, along with the liberation of people in Holocaust camps. It also ended the Great Depression and elevated the US to its superpower status. World War II is often seen as the “Good War.”
June 6, 1944, was the beginning of all this. The Allied invasion at Normandy was the beginning of US supremacy of the 20th century. Many people continue to celebrate the courage and sacrifice of the men who fought that day. Indeed, paying respect to individual sacrifice is a worthy cause.
However, we should not celebrate the war itself. Instead, we should look at it critically and ask what we can learn from it, which means being aware of our own atrocities. Allied planes firebombed Dresden, an undefended German city, destroying 85 percent of it, and killing between 35,000 and 135,000 civilians. Likewise, the Napalming of Japanese cities by the US was gruesome, and so too, was the death of more than 200,000 people from the detonation of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In his book, A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn reminds us that the Allied powers went on to build weapons far greater in numbers and much more powerful than anything the fascists ever built. Today, the US has more than 700 military bases worldwide, and it controls the destinies of more countries than Hitler, Mussolini and Japan did put together.
The overall lack of understanding of history, particularly of World War II, allows many Americans to be fooled into war again and again. As Zinn says, the greatest consequence of World War II is that it gave Americans the perception that somehow war is justifiable. This message is depicted by media, history and even war films. Steven Spielberg’s portrayal of the D-Day landing in the movie Saving Private Ryan lures the viewer into the film in a way that seems to glorify military heroism, something Zinn says should be “buried along with all [the] bodies in Arlington Cemetery.” Instead, Zinn argues, war films should “persuade the next generation that such scenes must never occur again.”
While D-Day was an extraordinary occurrence, more than 50 million people perished in World War II. Its effects were extremely harmful to people all around the world. The US was on the winning side, but winning a “good war” does not provide a license to ignore the harsh realities of war, and it certainly does not give historical or moral justification for future wars. We should look at war critically, and ask how we can prevent it from ever happening again. After all, those who sacrifice the most benefit the least. The architects of war are never the ones who die on beaches or return home with their minds and bodies mutilated. On the 71st anniversary of D-Day, it is noble to honor the people who gave their lives, but we should not commemorate the war itself.