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June 3, 2006
Good War? Ain't No Such Thing

Frank Schaeffer gains a scoop in his Washington Post column by relating an incident in the British zone of control, an account of brutality and a potential war crime related by an eyewitness to the incident:

"I saw an ugly sight: a British officer interrogating a civilian, and repeatedly hitting him about the head with the chair; treatment which the [civilian], his face a mask of blood, suffered with stoicism. At the end of the interrogation, which had not been considered successful, the officer called on a private and asked him in a pleasant, conversational sort of manner, 'Would you like to take this man away, and shoot him?' The private's reply was to spit on his hands, and say, 'I don't mind if I do, sir.'

"I received confirmation . . . that American combat units were ordered by their officers to beat to death [those] who attempted to surrender to them. These men seem very naive and childlike, but some of them are beginning to question the ethics of this order.

"We liberated them from the Fascist Monster. And what is the prize? The rebirth of democracy. The glorious prospect of being able one day to choose their rulers from a list of powerful men, most of whose corruptions are generally known and accepted with weary resignation. The days of Mussolini must seem like a lost paradise compared to us."

So it's not much of a scoop, coming sixty-two years late. It comes from British author Norman Lewis, who traveled through newly-liberated Italy after the fall of Mussolini in 1944, and it reminds us that war and brutality go hand in hand. Even in the Good War, as World War II has been called, Allied troops committed terrible crimes, some of which became known, and most of which got buried by the military and political leadership in order to protect the war effort.

In this sense, the pacifists have a point; war is a degrading experience for victor and vanquished alike.

However, what we know now about World War II is that it stopped a brutal genocide that would have killed millions of more people had the Axis powers not been stopped. We also know that the vast majority of our fathers, uncles, and grandfathers fought and behaved honorably, allowing Europe to shake off the shackles of fascism in its varying forms -- or at least Western Europe. Eastern Europe would not gain its freedom for another forty-five years, thanks to an ugly but probably necessary deal that handed half of the continent to a dictator not all that much better than the madman we deposed.

When we hear about the Hadithas that inevitably occur (if in fact Haditha turns out to be a war crime, something we have not yet confirmed), we react viscerally, because we believe ourselves to be good and honorable people. Proponents of the war will hurriedly attempt to excuse it or even justify it, while opponents use it to argue that all troops either have or eventually will behave in a similar manner. We saw both reactions during the Viet Nam War, although much more of the latter, thanks to men like John Kerry and put-up jobs like Winter Soldier.

The truth, as Schaeffer explains, is that there are no Good Wars. War brutalizes people and creates damage that takes years to undo. The question is whether the alternatives are worse, or whether they have proven ineffective. In the case of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan, the answer to both questions was yes -- and especially with Europe, where alternatives had proven ineffective the multiple times they were tried. So too in Iraq, where a dozen years of sanctions and UN resolutions resulted in enriching Saddam Hussein's bank accounts, allowing him to fund Palestinian terror, commit genocide against his own people, and defy all UN resolutions demanding an accounting for his pre-war WMD and an end to his crimes against the Kurds and Shi'ites.

We decided that the alternatives of status quo (Saddam continuing to enrich himself, funding terrorism, defying accountability) were indeed worse than the price of going to war to end them. As in Europe, we deposed the tyrant and remained behind to build a representative government to reduce the risk of a failed state as well as to give the Iraqis a better shot at ruling themselves rather than just trading despots. If it succeeds, and thus far the democratic movement has continually gained strength, then the results of the war will be good indeed.

That does not mean that everything that happened during the war will be good or honorable. As Lewis recorded in his travels, the lack of discipline among soldiers led to terrible crimes against civilian populations in World War II, and not just in Italy, either. Proponents cannot shade their eyes from such events, nor can we pretend that they never occur. However, we cannot allow another Winter Soldier to besmirch the honorable and courageous efforts of the overwhelming majority of our troops in any conflict, regardless of one's position on this war or any other.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 3, 2006 8:04 AM

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