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World War II: The Good War Gone Bad

(Photo: Wikimedia)

This is the first article in an irregularly appearing series, “Listening to Soldiers and Vets,” featuring the voices of soldiers and veterans from armed conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries, voices whose clarity and moral fiber were forged in the crucible of war.

So long as we resort to war to settle differences between nations, so long will we have to endure the horrors, the barbarities and excesses that war brings. -British Air Marshall Sir Robert Saundby on the Allied bombing of Dresden

In January 2012, the White House and the Department of Defense released a pithy, strategic policy document, “Sustaining US Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense.” Like all predecessor defense policies since World War II, its raison d’etre is maintaining American global supremacy through military superiority. And its premise: “Everybody else must be weaker,” to sustain US national security. Cold wars and hot wars since World War II have turned us into a self-appointed global cop, notes Army veteran and international policy specialist Andrew Bacevich. As for statecraft, he adds, “Washington has become an intellectual dead zone.”

The seeds of American militarism spawned by the Second World War compel us to probe beneath the “good war” moniker because it is the poster war that keeps war acceptable in our society. In this piece, the soldiers’ and veterans’ voices are unique in being few – it was our most popular war, critics are rare and in from voices of highly educated veterans and high-level military commanders.

The Good War Gone Bad

I was born as British and American troops were establishing beachheads in Taranto and Salerno, Italy, for what would be a protracted and deadly campaign to rout Mussolini’s fascist regime. Two of my mother’s brothers and two other uncles, all first generation Americans, served in the war. Only one war in my lifetime – the Second World War – has retained any vestige of moral core. Yet, even that one was contaminated by war culture on the “good” side.

In the world war to defeat fascism and that ended the Holocaust, the Allies committed a legion of militarily unnecessary and criminal acts, from British and American bombers intentionally firebombing hundreds of thousands of civilians in German and Japanese cities to mass serial and gang rape of German women by Russians at the war’s end. More than 100,000 women and girls in Berlin were raped over a period of eight weeks in spring 1945 by conquering Allied Russian soldiers, men drunk on alcohol intentionally left behind by German soldiers to impair their fighting ability.(1) Churchill caused an estimated three million Indians to starve as British authorities precipitated the 1943-44 Bengal famine in India by exporting Indian grain to feed Britain and extracting India’s industrial production to support the Allied war effort.(2) In showcasing the atom bomb by dropping it on a country in the process of negotiating a truce, the United States instigated the cold-war buildup of nuclear weapons, the specter of nuclear war, the duplicitous “Atoms for Peace” program and a multitude of proxy wars.

Thus, even the allegedly just war, World War II, was corrupted in means and consequences. Moreover, Allied corruption pre-dated the outbreak of the war. In his history of nonviolence, Mark Kurlansky indicts the “captains of banking and industry in the United States, Britain and France”(3) and their acquiescent political leaders for a decade of industrial and financial support of Germany during which period Hitler made his fascist intentions known.

The Bombing of Royan: A Bombardier’s Reflections on Air War

War corrupts everyone who engages in it … I and others had become unthinking killers of innocent people. -“Just War”(4)

The probing journey made in 1966 by World War II veteran and historian Howard Zinn to the French Atlantic coast town of Royan – a town he had helped to destroy as a bombardier in a 1945 Allied air-ground assault – sheds piercing light into military culture and the inevitable inhumanity of war. The official US version, parroted by The New York Times, of the three-day air assault on Royan with incendiaries, nearly one-half million gallons of napalm bombs and 2,000 pound demolition bombs pronounced the routing of “stubborn German garrisons … still holding out” a success.(5) Zinn, however, uncovered media falsification, military hubris and needless tragedy in his pursuit of the facts behind the bombing mission.

The April 1945 mission took place three weeks before the end of the war in Europe. Garrisoned German troops in Royan were waiting for the declaration of war’s end to surrender; they were not resisting or attacking. Further, while officially recorded as a mission directed at German installations, Zinn points out that it was designed as saturation, not precision, bombing with little ability to target the German garrison. “From our great height (25,000 feet), I remember distinctly seeing the bombs explode in the town, flaring like matches struck in a fog. I was completely unaware of the human chaos below.”(6)

The town center of Royan had been mistakenly bombed three months earlier by British bombers who missed their military target; the April bombing completed its obliteration. Jellied gasoline, known as napalm, was first used by the US Eighth Air Force on Royan, serving as a trial test of the American Air Force’s new skin-burning incendiary weapon and a precursor to its massive use in the Korean War and later in Vietnam.

A French admiral’s memoir, published in 1966, offered further insight into the why of the Royan assault. In a word, morale. It would boost French ground troop morale to follow the bombing with some invigorating end-of-war fighting, the admiral explains. Moreover, French military pride demanded that the enemy not be allowed to surrender but must be conquered.(7) The living, burning furnace of French people, homes, forest and town center was, as the military memoirist recalls, a blaze of glory that sharpened the appetite for further military action and glory on the eve of the war’s end. The troops were ordered next to attack the French island of Oleron – “… a conquest without military value …”(8)

Zinn collates the venal motives behind the assault on the small French Atlantic town and uses them as a mirror for the macro dynamics of war culture. Blinding military ambition and pride in compiling victories, the quest for honor and glory even in militarily useless battles, the irresistible urge to try out new weapons and a habit of obedience to duty such that one does not step out of line: all generate and intensify the one-way momentum of war beyond the bounds of just war principles and international conventions – even for the “good guys.” Zinn’s unvarnished account of the bombing of Royan serves as an archetype of air war’s morbid legacy throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries.

The Slippery Slope of Air War

The first bombs used in war were dropped from Italian planes in 1911 onto desert oases near Tripoli, to kill Turks and Arabs and to win possession of what would be named Libya. At home, poets feted the pilots and rhapsodized about the sound and fury of the new aerial warfare. Other colonial powers followed suit against other colonial people. Britain routinely used aerial bombing throughout its empire to control uprisings, with no regard for whom and what were bombed. France maintained order in Syria by bombing villages around Damascus to the point of near total destruction in early 1926.(9) European powers considered rebellious colonial peoples as “savages,” “infidels” and inferior to themselves and, thus, outside the conventions of war they more or less honored with each other.

In 1925, Spain bombed Moroccan villages and, in breach of the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning biological and chemical warfare, dropped mustard gas. In a similar quest to liquidate “inferiors,” Japan dropped incendiary bombs throughout the provisional capital of China, Chungking, in 1939, creating massive infernos that consumed wood houses and people.

While the specter and likelihood of air warfare grew, Europeans resisted full-scale air warfare against each other’s citizens until the Spanish Civil War. From 1936 to 1939, Germany dropped millions of bombs on Spanish cities, towns and villages to crush the resistance to Franco’s fascism. The devastation of the Basque cultural center and capital, Guernica, with a mix of fire, splinter and high explosive bombs, caught the Western world’s attention. Media coverage of Basque people being bombed and Picasso’s modernist depiction of human and animal agony and terror in Guernica spoke to the West in a way that European and Japanese bombing of colonial peoples had not – because they had bombed “their own.” It also set a precedent for bombing human settlements in the Second World War.(10)

Bombing of Cities in World War II

Are the former Allied nations willing … to question the morality of means by which they won the war …? -Mark Anderson

Bombing between Allied and Axis Powers began with British bombing of German military targets and industrial targets, which also destroyed working-class neighborhoods. The Nazis retaliated with the blitzkrieg of British cities, killing an estimated 40,000 civilians over six months. British strategic bombing of German military and industrial targets traveled swiftly down a slippery slope to area bombing of whole cities with incendiary bombs followed by high-explosive bombs that prevented Germans from fighting the fires. One night’s air attack on Hamburg killed 50,000 residents. Plans were set in place to kill millions of German civilians through urban bombing, in order to destroy citizen morale.(11) Once the logic of bombing took over – obliterate as much as possible as quickly as possible to end the war as soon as possible – the rights of civilians in armed conflict, as defined by international conventions, vanished. Given the moral abhorrence of the Nazi genocide of European Jews, the extreme scale of Nazi war crimes and the status of World War II as a just war, the Anglo-American bombing of 131 German cities and towns, which killed up to half a million civilians and wounded nearly a million in cataclysmic firestorms, has not been scrutinized until recently.

At best, we do have a few clear-eyed veterans of that war who grasped war’s slippery slope and inevitable descent into barbarity. British Air Marshall Sir Robert Saundby wrote of the Allied bombing of Dresden:

It is not so much this or the other means of making war that is immoral or inhumane. What is immoral is war itself. Once full-scale war has broken out it can never be humanized or civilized and if one side attempted to do so it would be most likely to be defeated. So long as we resort to war to settle differences between nations, so long will we have to endure the horrors, the barbarities and excesses that war brings[12].

Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

[T]he use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender. -Adm. William D. Leahy

The saturation bombing of German and Japanese cities, which incinerated, poisoned and suffocated hundreds of thousands of civilians in cataclysmic firestorms, seasoned the US government for dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the first atomic blast, which killed 100,000 residents of Hiroshima immediately, the grievous radiation sickness of survivors was not anticipated, nor was it believed when reported. Without any reconsideration, a second bomb – this one plutonium – was dropped on Nagasaki, killing 70,000 outright. The American military censored all documentation and photo images of the two bombs’ unparalleled human devastation,(13) sheltering Americans from the horrors of what our government perpetrated on Japanese civilians: women, men and children instantly reduced to ash. Likewise, the post-war US occupying authority forbade, under penalty of law, Japanese citizens to own pictures of the atomic bomb destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A teenager in Nagasaki on August 9, Kyoko Hayashi ran from the blast with a “pack of people whose hands, feet, faces no longer looked human.”(14) As a survivor, a hibakusha, she feels that a unique violence of the atomic bomb is that it destroyed the fundamental human reciprocity of those who die and those who see them off. Near the age of 70, she visited Trinity site, the Air Force Atomic Museum and the Science Museum at Los Alamos where photos, objects and films about the history of the atomic bomb were shown. (She noted the audiences were comprised of white people only.) Of this soul-wrenching experience, she wrote, “I understand that winners create a proud history … The world did not need your experiment.”(15)

At the time of the atomic bombing, Japanese peace negotiations were underway in Moscow, negotiations of which President Truman knew at least three months before the bombs were dropped.(16) Moreover, Japan’s emperor had telegraphed Truman in July 1945 (by which time sixty-six of Japan’s largest cities had been extensively firebombed) asking for peace discussions.(17)

American military leaders from all branches of the armed forces, among them Generals Eisenhower, Arnold, Marshall and MacArthur; and Admirals Leahy, Nimitz and Halsey strongly dissented from the decision to use the bombs – some prior to August 1945, some in retrospect – for the following military and moral reasons. Japan was already defeated and in peace negotiations with Russia; surrender was imminent. Moreover, Russia was willing to enter the war against Japan, if necessary. Bombing dense human settlements was barbarous, immoral and would shock world opinion; and a demonstration bombing away from residential areas (also suggested by some atomic bomb scientists) could be used instead to force immediate surrender. The top military commanders concurred that the decision to use the atomic bomb was political, not military.(18)

The 1946 United States Strategic Bombing Survey drew the same conclusion, adding that Allied bombing of cities in Germany and American bombing in Japan did not appreciably shorten or win the war. In his 1994 memoir, John Kenneth Galbraith, who had conducted the 1946 US Strategic Bombing Survey, observes that in all subsequent US wars in which air warfare dominated, it did not win or affect the war’s outcome because of the “extensively random destructiveness of air warfare.”(19)


The remarkable goodwill and credibility enjoyed by the United States at the close of the Second World War was dissipated country by country, intervention by intervention. -“Killing Hope”(20)

When the war of fighting fascism in Europe and Asia was over, the Allies’ colonies in Asia, Africa and Latin America began to push off the yoke of colonialism and domination against the war’s victors – their oppressors. The Allied countries responded with torture, support for dictators, assassination, chemical warfare and saturation bombing. On the first day of peace in Europe, May 8, 1945, France bombed the Algerian city of Setif, for rebelling against French colonial rule and demanding the right to self-determination. It was non-newsworthy,(21) given the jubilation of Allied victory in Europe. As for Russia’s motives in fighting fascism in World War II, they had their own brand in the gulag; and when the war was over, they marched into Eastern Europe.

We became, Zinn notes,(22) what we called barbaric in the enemy – German bombing of Guernica, Nazi bombing of British cities, Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor, only we intensified it. Future US wars, including the drone wars being carried out in Pakistan and Yemen, perfected the terrorism of air war.

Military Keynesianism

Following World War II, the US built a mammoth economy around defense spending – commonly known as the military-industrial complex – and also maintained the largest defense budget in the world. By comparison, post-war Germany and Japan had low military expenditures as a percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) compared to the United States. Their economies invested more substantially in education, infrastructure, research and development, capital and manpower, while the US “committed to the military establishment and especially to the developing of increasingly exotic weaponry.”(23) In the 1980s, up to one-third of American science and engineering talent was employed in defense work.

Predictably, the US fell behind in manufacturing with old stock and equipment and lost out to other industrial countries in sophisticated manufacturing, including medical technology, automobiles and most recently wind turbines. Moreover, military spending is less productive in economic terms when compared to spending on infrastructure, education, or tax cuts to increase household consumption. Over the last 40 years, most American workers have had stagnating or declining incomes.

In 2013, the proposed federal national security budget will approximate $1 trillion – equivalent to the rest of the world’s combined military budget – and will account for nearly 25 cents of every federal dollar spent. At base, the defense budget is a federal entitlement program for military and national security contractors and also America’s only substantial taxpayer-supported jobs program (the sole entitlement and government jobs creation program unchallenged by Republicans). Weapons are poised to become our major export, in tandem with violent movies and pornography.

Statecraft since World War II has generated, as Vietnam veteran Bacevich dubs it, the “sacred trinity”(24) of: American military power; the Pentagon’s global footprint of some 1,000 military bases tracing an arc over all major oil resources, plus 11 aircraft carriers with enough military firepower to destroy most countries; and the American compulsion for CIA and military intervention.

Militarization of the CIA

The CIA was created following the war for the purpose of intelligence gathering in the buildup of the cold war; but it split quickly into intelligence gathering and espionage versus covert action (hiring paramilitaries, planning coups, feeding weapons and supplies to country rulers and so on.).(25) Between 1945 and 2004, the CIA and military were involved in assassination or attempts to assassinate 38 country and opposition leaders, among them Zhou Enlai (China), Sukarno (Indonesia), Mohammed Mossadegh (Iran), Gamal Abdul Nasser (Egypt), Patrice Lumumba (Congo), Rafael Trujillo (Dominican Republic), Salvador Allende (Chile) and Michel Manley (Jamaica). The prospect of laying the foundations for peace, prosperity and justice in the war-ravaged world of 1945, “collapsed under the awful weight of anti-communism.”(26)

In the most comprehensive and up-to-date history of the CIA, “Legacy of Ashes,” Tim Weiner sums up the record of CIA intelligence as substantially more wrong than right, a record he attributes to cultural naïveté and lack of language capability (as compared to international counterparts). What, then, does this cultural insularity and ignorance augur for a secret global counterterrorism program of targeted drone assassinations boosted exponentially by the Obama administration and run by the CIA? A lot of innocent people killed, with predictable blowback.

Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Power

Everybody seems to think we are skunks, saberrattlers and warmongers … Comparisons are being made between ours and Hitler’s military machine. -Quotes from President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, regarding US nuclear weapons buildup and threats to use them.

Dropping the atomic bombs in World War II launched an arms race in nuclear weapons, now spread to nine countries, with the ever-present specter of their use. In the May 2012 Vienna meeting on the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the nuclear-armed countries explicitly stated their intention to maintain a nuclear arsenal for security. The same month, NATO countries convening in Chicago pronounced, “Nuclear weapons are … essential … for defense and dissuasion.”

Of all post-war presidents and leaders of any country, Eisenhower – who as supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe was repulsed by the atomic bombs dropped on Japan – fast-tracked building the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons and recklessly threatened their use when conflicts arose in Korea, the Suez, and elsewhere. In 1960, he approved a plan for a simultaneous Sino-Soviet strike in the event of war, with a projected death toll of 600 million. By the early 1960s, authorizations he had set in place filled the US arsenal with more than 30,000 nuclear weapons – the equivalent of nearly 1.5 million Hiroshima bombs.

To divert the attention of a world terrified by the arms race with the Soviets and to dispel the resultant taboo around nuclear weapons, Eisenhower’s administration devised the “Atoms for Peace” program. Nuclear power was fraudulently marketed as the peaceful, beneficent, safe and clean counterpart of nuclear weapons, even though it was well-known in government that uranium mined for nuclear power reactors and their spent fuel could be reprocessed to make nuclear bombs. This Faustian bargain led us to Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima; an estimated 150 significant radiation leaks at nuclear power plants across the world even before Chernobyl; and the current threat of war with Iran.

Breaking With the Past

War cannot be humanized, it can only be abolished. -Albert Einstein

We must break with this past: End the war in Afghanistan and bring all troops and mercenaries home – leaving none behind, as the majority of Americans and NATO country citizens want; stop the saber rattling about Iran and war activities in Yemen; bring our war dollars home, a campaign that many American communities have organized and the 2011 conference of mayors unanimously supported. More fundamentally, we need to extricate from the 65-year-old reflexive rut of militarized response to political conflict, military force projection across the world, feeding the bottomless pit of the military-industrial complex and indulging “further in the fiction of American omnipotence.” Nonviolent civil resistance has a track record far superior to violent armed struggle, as recent studies demonstrate.

A comparison of all known major nonviolent and violent resistance campaigns from 1900 to 2006 (323 campaigns for regime change, ousting foreign occupiers, secession) found that nonviolence was twice as successful as violent struggle (53 percent vs.26 percent). Moreover, nonviolent campaigns, in the face of regime crackdowns, are six times more likely to achieve full success than violent campaigns facing comparable repression, and 12 times likelier to achieve limited concessions than violent. A second comparative study of political transitions in 67 countries from 1972 through 2005 also confirmed the superiority of nonviolent resistance as “the major agent for change in the majority of national conflicts.” Specifically, broad-based nonviolent civic resistance that uses mass protests, boycotts, protests, blockades, strikes and civil disobedience is more successful in undermining authoritarian rulers, attacking their support and fostering the emergence of durable democratic governments.

Abolishing armed conflict and purging militarism from our political system may seem an unattainable ideal. But so also did the equal rights for women, outlawing slavery, universal education and a multitude of other once-impossible dreams. Rape in civil society and, more so, in war – was once accepted as normative. So also were killing heretics, burning witches, dueling to the death and child labor. Today, these are crimes prohibited by international and national law. War, on the other hand, continues to be normative, even while it is widely recognized as a ruinous response to within-country and between-country conflict.

Conducting war within humanitarian and ethical guidelines is an oxymoron, given the nature of war to descend inexorably into barbarity, excessive use of force and weapons, sexual exploitation and massacre of innocents. International humanitarian conventions have not and cannot prevent the social and economic ruination endemic to war. Reform of war has been tried for more than 100 years of Geneva Conventions and international law on the humanitarian conduct of war; it’s time for abolition.

Progress is not linear. It doesn’t come in a day, or a month, or a year, or in a single campaign. But it comes.


1. Anonymous. 2006. “A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City. A Diary,” New York: Picador.

2. Madhusree Mukerjee. 2010. “Churchill’s Secret War: the British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II.” New York: Basic Books.

3. Mark Kurlansky. 2006. “Nonviolence: Twenty-Five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea.” New York: Modern Library Chronicles. p.129.

4. Howard Zinn. 2005. “Just War.” Italy: CHARTA. p.37.

5. Howard Zinn, 2010. “The Bomb.” San Francisco: City Lights Books. p.65.

6. Howard Zinn, 2010. “The Bomb.” San Francisco: City Lights Books. p.67.

7. Howard Zinn, 2010. “The Bomb.” San Francisco: City Lights Books. p.80.

8. Howard Zinn, 2010. “The Bomb.” San Francisco: City Lights Books. p.84.

9. Sven Lindquist. 2001. “A History of Bombing.” New York: the New Press.

10. Sven Lindquist. 2001. “A History of Bombing.” New York: the New Press, p.84

11. Ibid.

12. “The Bomb,” p.75.

13. “A History of Bombing.” Peter Wyden. 1984. “Day One: Before Hiroshima and After.” New York: Simon and Schuster.

14. Kyoko Hayashi. 2010. “From Trinity to Trinity.” Station Hill Press: Barrytown, New York. p.50.

15. Kyoko Hayashi. 2010. “From Trinity to Trinity,” Station Hill Press: Barrytown, New York, p.31.

16. Zinn quoting Gar Alperovitz in “The Bomb,” p.46

17. “A History of Bombing,” p.110.

18. Gar Alperovitz. 1995. “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth,” New York: Knopf.

19. John Kenneth Galbraith. 1994. “A Journey Through Economic Time,” Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p.138.

20. William Blum. 2004. “Killing Hope,” Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press. p.7.

21. “History of Bombing,” p.109.

22. “The Bomb and Just War.”

23. “A Journey Through Economic time,” p.201.

24. Andrew Bacevich. 2010. “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War,” New York: Henry Holt and Company.

25. Tim Weiner. 2008. “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA,” New York: Anchor Books.

26. “On Killing Hope.”

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