Talk of war faded from the American conversation as midterm elections approached, but now that the campaign is over and Republicans are in firm control of Congress, we can expect a return to all war, all the time on the news networks and political talk shows. The producers and hosts, of course, will be taking their cues from the White House, which seems more comfortable talking about battle plans than about corrupt business practices, growing unemployment and all those other unpleasant domestic issues that are not the stuff of historical drama.
It’s hard not to envy the legions of commentators who seem so sure that an invasion of Iraq will make the world a safer and saner place. Perhaps they know something that has escaped my notice, because all I see is a quagmire at best, and a catastrophe at worst. The pro-war crowd constantly compares today’s situation in the Middle East to Europe in the late 1930’s, when, as we all know, Britain and France chose to appease rather than confront Adolf Hitler. In this comparison, those who are reluctant to invade a nation thousands of miles away are but modern-day Neville Chamberlains desperately clinging to the idea of peace when the times call for confrontation.
It’s a comparison that resonates with many of us in part because of the revival of interest in World War II over the last 10 years. Beginning with the commemorations of the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994, post-war Americans rediscovered the epic of World War II and learned all over again about the futility and dangers of appeasement. The image of Winston Churchill appeared on the cover of opinion journals as the 20th century ended, with writers justifiably praising him for courage, defiance and moral clarity.
Now, faced with a new kind of enemy in a new kind of conflict, pro-war propagandists insist that we follow the Churchill model of leadership. It is a powerful argument, because we know how right Churchill was about Hitler in the 1930’s, and we know that because his warnings were ignored, millions died. A show of force in 1937 or 1938 might have prevented that slaughter. And, today’s pro-war commentators say, we have a chance to avoid the mistakes of France and Britain 60 years ago. If we act now, we will prevent a more horrible war in the future. If we were sure of that, if we were sure that Iraq’s threat—not to its neighbors or to Israel, but to the American homeland—will only grow more dangerous in the coming years, then a pre-emptive attack might be morally justifiable. If this is 1938 all over again, appeasement and containment clearly are not the answers.
There is another analogy, however, that the pro-war crowd does not mention. A quarter-century before Munich, the armies of Europe mobilized in the aftermath of an assassination in the Balkans. As the historian Barbara Tuchman recounted in her masterpiece, The Guns of August, the continent’s great powers marshaled their armed forces with no understanding of what they were about to unleash not only upon one another, but upon the world. Blindly, they stumbled toward what they assumed would be just another military adventure not unlike past wars. Bands played rousing music, politicians blustered, and the newspapers were filled with jingoistic propaganda as young men in new uniforms marched off to what became a slaughterhouse. World War I led to the deaths of millions, the collapse of four empires and, worse, to World War II.
In the early 1960’s John F. Kennedy softened his saber-rattling after he read Tuchman’s book. In fact, he demanded that his top aides read it, too. He saw it as a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of overheated rhetoric and reckless mobilization.
Nobody in the current administration seems interested in reading cautionary tales. That’s too bad, because the White House has in its possession a rather succinct piece of literature summarizing the dangers we may face. A friend of mine gave me a letter his daughter sent to the president. The girl, a fourth-grade student in my parish school, is 9 years old. In pleading against an invasion of Iraq, she asked: “What has Iraq done to us? You’re hurting our own country. Our country was known for freedom, now it will be known for war!”
That’s precisely what many of us fear, that the White House’s obsession with war is wounding our image overseas, in places where we once were admired for our reluctance to take up arms. During the 1940 presidential campaign, Franklin D. Roosevelt summed up an attitude that today’s White House would dismiss as unpatriotic. “America hates war,” Roosevelt said, even as the armies of Europe were fighting each other in the opening battles of World War II. “America hopes for peace.”
As the world well knows, there is no power or combination of powers that can match the United States. We are the world’s only superpower. We can demolish those who stand in our way, or who defy us.
That power inevitably will stir resentment and jealousy. It does not, however, have to inspire hatred—unless, of course, we choose to use that power unilaterally, promiscuously and for no good reason.
Could it be that America no longer hates war, and no longer hopes for peace? I find that hard to believe.