Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Refusing To Win Wars

As Americans, we eventually knock people down when we think they deserve it, but we refuse to humiliate them. Unfortunately, military historians tell us that complete defeat of one side is necessary for complete victory of the other. Otherwise, it just sort of drags on angrily. I hate to think that’s true. I hope that past wisdom turns out to be too simple, and America can bring forth a new form of conflict that doesn’t require the humiliation of the losing side.

But I wouldn’t count on it. I would place only small bets of that number coming up at present.

Sherman’s march through Georgia may have been necessary, but it seems unamerican. We don’t do that. We don’t kick people when they’re down. Hiroshima and Dresden were similarly necessary and wise, but it still goes against our grain. There is a strong feeling in America that we want to win some other way. We like the part where we knock down the bully and say “Have you had enough?” and the bully nods and slinks off, never to cause any trouble again. Maybe he even reforms. That’s how it’s supposed to go. That’s the spirit of Frank Merriwell at Yale, of Superman, Batman, and Chip Hilton. We got it from the Brits, I suppose.

We were pleased enough with giving the Kaiser a good licking, and participated as little as possible in Germany’s subsequent humiliation. Maybe that was better. Perhaps if Europe had done the same the Germans would not have felt the need to thrust off their humiliation. But another view of the conflict considers WWII to be a mere continuation of WWI, a war incomplete until defeat was entire.

We don’t have the stomach for it. Not we, our military, but we, the civilians. Only when weariness of war compels us to act hugely to make it stop do we allow our military to go there. We won Vietnam when we repulsed the Tet Offensive, but we were unwilling to play out the hand, letting it drag on until we just got sick of it and left.

We should know that about ourselves when we go to war.

6 comments:

Chris said...

We also don't like running up the score in sports, if it can be helped.

I remember Frank Merriwell fondly.

Quasimodo said...

Hiroshima and Dresden were similarly necessary and wise,

perhaps the silliest words ever written in the internet universe of silliness

Assistant Village Idiot's wife said...

My dad served in the Pacific and said that dropping the atom bomb on Japan saved more Japanese lives than American. The Japanese were prepared to all die for the emperor and would have fought every step of the way. When he surrendered, their lives were saved though many died from the bomb.

Jonathan said...

Quasi, explain the alternative to Hiroshima that would have ended the war with less American casualties. The key words are "necessary and wise" not moral. Very different calculations.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Quasi, come back when you can stay longer, for an actual discussion.

Donna B. said...

We also let the Japanese off lightly in the war crime trials. It's my take that we made a few examples to show what we were capable of, if necessary.

That left my uncle, who was a Japanese prisoner of war in the Philippines (Palawan) quite bitter.

He was one of eleven to escape while 150 or so of his fellow prisoners were burned alive.

Nothing less than total humiliation of the Japanese would likely have suited him. That would not have been wise, and certainly not necessary, but I didn't tell him that.

Fortunately for him, he channeled his emotion into lifelong love of the Filipino people who drug him out of the water half dead, nursed and cared for him, and saw to his safe return to an American unit.

I think it was Walter Russell Mead who said of the "Jacksonian" strain of Americans that they are slow to anger and go to war, but when they do, they want complete victory. Whether they, as a group, consider humiliation as part of a complete victory, I'm not sure.

I think it more likely that if they considered the opponent an honorable one, no humiliation would be required, but to them the Japanese showed a complete lack of honor.