I recently read “Armor and Blood” by Dennis Showalter. It’s about the Battle of Kursk in July of 1943, the massive, last-ditch offensive by the Nazis on the Eastern Front, and how the Soviet Army was able to stymy it, seize the initiative, and take the offensive for good. As Showalter notes, the Nazi offensive at Kursk in 1943 was much like the Ludendorff Offensives in the Spring of 1918 near the end of World War I. They were offensives of desperation. As General Ludendorff said in 1918, first we’ll punch a hole in the enemy’s lines, and then we’ll see. Tactical zeal (and wishful thinking) took the place of careful strategic calculation.
In 1918 as well as in 1943, the German military was given free rein to pursue a military solution when there wasn’t one to be had. Germany simply didn’t have the military means for the strategic end they sought to achieve. In 1918, Ludendorff believed he could defeat the Entente forces (the French, British, and other allies, to include the rapidly arriving Americans) on the Western Front, but his offensives only served to weaken his own army, ensuring its exhaustion and defeat by that November. In 1943, Hitler gambled he could defeat the Soviet Army at Kursk, but his massive offensive only weakened his own army, ensuring its exhaustion and eventual defeat in the spring of 1945. Both times, more military action only precipitated defeat and disaster.
Is the United States the inheritor of this Germanic bias? Instead of punching a hole, the U.S. military speaks of “surges.” It surged in Iraq in 2007. It surged in Afghanistan in 2010-11. But after each “surge,” the situation in those countries was basically the same – and, over time, grew worse.
Of course, U.S. “surges,” in each case involving roughly 30,000 additional troops, were in scale dwarfed by the German offensives in 1918 and 1943, involving millions of men and the movement of entire armies. But scale is less important than process. In each case, “victory” was staked on more military action, in part because both Germans and Americans believed themselves to be in the possession of “the finest fighting forces in the history of the world.” Neither, of course, would admit that they were fighting on foreign soil, that the enemy had agency too, and that the longer the fighting continued, the weaker they grew as the enemy grew stronger. So, in the name of “victory” the German and American “surges” played themselves out, and nothing changed strategically – there were no victories to be had.
The Germans, of course, drove themselves to utter collapse, both in 1918 and especially in 1945, after which they could no longer fool themselves as to the success of their “surges.” A superpower with enormous resources, the United States is not yet on the verge of collapse. But enormous budgetary deficits, driven in part by endless wars and a plethora of imperial commitments and overseas bases, are gradually eating away at the sinews of American strength, even as militarism eats away at the marrow of democracy.
After their utter defeat in 1945, the Germans learned to avoid endless war and the seductions of militarism. The question is: Will it require a total collapse of the American Empire before its leaders learn the same lesson?
I recently read Blood Red Snow: The Memoirs of a German Soldier, by Günter Koschorrek, which focuses mainly on combat on the Eastern Front between the Germans and Soviets during World War II. As Dan White has noted, military history sometimes degenerates into war porn – exciting tales of derring-do that save the day and end in citations and medals. Real war isn’t like that. Real war is horror, a horror that Koschorrek quickly came to know as a very young man.
Writing about his first weeks of combat, Koschorrek notes “how impatiently we waited for the opportunity to fight at the front! Now, after exactly three weeks in combat, no one talks of heroism or enthusiasm any more. On the contrary, the only wish is to get out of this death trap alive.”
Koschorrek’s first wound in combat is a minor one, which does not qualify him for evacuation from the front. He writes:
I feel the disappointment—a hope has been dashed. And then I think how quickly human feelings and attitudes can change. It is only a matter of weeks since I was dreaming of glory and heroism and was so full of élan that I was almost bursting. Now I long for a Heimatschuss—because it appears to me to be the only way that I can, with any sort of honor, say goodbye to this soul-destroying environment …
Koschorrek, a machine-gunner, quickly became a hardened veteran of the war. When he sees friends killed in combat, he writes of a “sort of madness” that came over him, the desire for “bloody revenge.” He writes:
Revenge and retaliation! That inflammatory clarion call for revenge! That’s the way all war leaders want their soldiers to be. Remorseless, and with hatred and retaliation in their hearts, men can win battles, and quite ordinary soldiers can be converted into celebrities. Fear is converted into hatred, anger and calls for retribution. In this way you are motivated to fight on—even decorated with medals as a hero.
As the war drags on and Nazi Germany begins to lose, Koschorrek writes of “deserters and dissenters” within the ranks. “They are called traitors to the fatherland,” he notes, but Koschorrek concludes with an important insight: “Nobody can be himself during a war—we all belong to the people and the state.”
War witnesses the death of individuality in the name of a collective: the people, the state. More frightening is the death of individual conscience, as even the worst war crimes are excused in the name of “defending” the state.
As the Soviets close in and begin to invade Germany proper, Koschorrek encounters the aftermath of horrific reprisals committed by the Soviet invaders on the German people. In one case, he notes how ordinary German villagers “were surprised in their sleep by the Soviets and couldn’t escape. The [Nazi] party bigwigs, however, were all able to get away in time.”
When the war is finally over, Koschorrek was able to evade capture by the Soviets and transportation to Siberia as a POW. He writes of trading his war medals (such as the Iron Cross) and ribbons for cigarettes, noting how American soldiers lusted after German war memorabilia. Koschorrek’s medals and ribbons—marks of valor he wanted so keenly at war’s start—became by war’s end nothing but barter for smokes.
His last words reflect the hard-won wisdom of a man who fought as part of a war of annihilation on the Eastern Front:
when will people realize that it is possible for any of us to be manipulated by domineering and power-crazed individuals who know how to motivate the masses in order to misuse them for their own ends? While they keep well out of the way [of war], in safety, they have no hesitation in brutally sacrificing their people in the name of patriotism. Will mankind ever stand together against them?
Koschorrek, a frontline combat soldier, can be faulted for not being more critical of Nazi ideology and its megalomaniacal designs. He has little to say about Nazi war atrocities. His account is focused on combat and comrades, in the thick of the fighting, where the desire to stay alive is all-consuming.
It’s a book to be read carefully by anyone who thinks war is glorious.
My dad was in the Army in World War II. He was a dental technician in an armored headquarters group and never went overseas. But many of his friends did go overseas and saw combat. What follows are some excerpts from letters sent to my dad.
Bill Zerby was attached to the 781 Tank Battalion, 7th Army, in France and Germany. In December 1944, just before the Battle of the Bulge, Zerby wrote to my dad that:
“Here we have plenty of mud and rain and 24 hours a day the field artillery lays down a barrage with everything they have. The outfit is making out pretty well so far. One good thing these boys don’t believe in taking prisoners…. We all live in houses and have lanterns for lights. Everything is blacked out at 5 P.M. till dawn.”
I’d like to repeat Zerby’s 3rd sentence: One good thing these boys don’t believe in taking prisoners.
The fight against the Nazis was tough, and it wasn’t just the Germans who violated the Geneva Convention and its rules about taking prisoners. War, in short, should never be sugarcoated.
At the end of March 1945, Zerby wrote to my dad again, a letter that contained this telling sentence:
“Bookbinder [a fellow soldier] sure got a break [by not going overseas] but he better hope he don’t get sent to Germany. It seems they don’t like the Heb’s [Jews].”
By this point, Allied troops were beginning to liberate German concentration camps, and beginning as well to realize the murderous hatred the Nazis had for the Jewish people.
On a lighter note, Zerby regales my dad with the following story:
“The place where we live now is a large estate that belongs to a German big shot. He got chased out and we moved in. He has a wine cellar that runs all over town—all underground passages, and the dates on some of the casks run back to 1755. Well some of the wine was really good. The boys made a tour of the place and took all the best drinks for their own use. Yes, I was in on it too. Now we are tired of it and don’t take anymore. Of course it’s bolted up now but that don’t mean anything.”
In another letter, Zerby writes about American soldiers hunting for deer. Yes, American troops knew how to have a good time. Wine, venison, and women. After all, who knew from day to day if you’d live to see home again?
At the end of 1945, Zerby writes again to my dad that “I am now a proud civilian and no more lousy Army life.” And to my dad’s mention of a few of their friends from the battalion, Zerby writes with painful honesty: “I don’t remember many of those guys anymore. A hell of a lot of them got bumped off also last winter [in action in France and Germany]. I guess we were just lucky.”
Another of my dad’s friends was Corporal Ed C. Sarna, who was assigned to a headquarters battery in Divisional Artillery. He wrote to my dad in December 1944 that:
“To date, I have seen a number of [German V-1] buzz bombs at a very close range. A little in regards to Germany. If Hitler decided to fight until we hit Berlin, I can sincerely feel that the destruction will wipe Germany right off the map. At our present place – there isn’t a place found to be livable. Our forces are really doing a good job of it.”
The Allies wanted to make sure the Germans knew they had been well and truly beaten in this war, so as to prevent the myth that emerged after World War I that the German Army had not been defeated in the field.
This was a sentiment seconded by Corporal Paul Vella, 5th Depot Repair Squadron, Maintenance Division. He wrote to my dad in March 1945 that “You’re right, Julie, the Germans are getting the shit kicked out of them and the quicker it’s over the better I like it. I sure would like to see the states after a couple of years of being away from it.”
Corporal Vella also jokingly mentioned the “Soldier’s Prayer” in his letter: Please, Dear God, distribute the bullets like you do the pay and give officers first dibs. Yes, there’s some grim humor shared in the front lines.
There’s nothing really that special about these letters to my dad – and that’s their value. They are the typical sentiments of American dogfaces in Europe in World War II. Men who saw the destruction of Germany and the deaths of their friends. They had no illusions about war, and they didn’t spout patriotic platitudes. They just wanted the war to be over so they could get back to living their “real” lives.
As one soldier put it to my dad in 1945, “I sure hope that I’ll get my discharge soon, I’ve got plans to complete, my girl is getting tired of waiting so long.”
August 6, 1945. Hiroshima. A Japanese city roughly the size of Houston. Incinerated by the first atomic bomb. Three days later, Nagasaki. Japanese surrender followed. It seemed the bombs had been worth it, saving countless American (and Japanese) lives, seeing that a major invasion of the Japanese home islands was no longer needed. But was the A-bomb truly decisive in convincing the Japanese to surrender?
President Truman’s decision to use atomic bombs against Japan is perhaps the most analyzed, and, in the United States, most controversial decision made during World War II. The controversy usually creates more heat than light, with hardliners posed on mutually opposed sides. The traditional interpretation is that Truman used the A-bombs to convince a recalcitrant Japanese Emperor that the war was truly lost. A quick Japanese surrender appeared to justify Truman’s choice. It also saved tens of thousands of Allied lives in the Pacific (while killing approximately 250K Japanese). This thesis is best summed up in Paul Fussell’s famous essay, “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb.”
Even before Hiroshima, however, a small number of scientists argued that the A-bomb should not be used against Japan without a prior demonstration in a remote and uninhabited location. Later, as the horrible nature of radiation casualties became clearer to the American people, and as the Soviet Union developed its own arsenal of atomic weapons, threatening the United States with nuclear Armageddon, Americans began to reexamine Truman’s decision in the context of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Gar Alperovitz’s revisionist view that Truman was practicing “atomic diplomacy” won its share of advocates in the 1960s. (Alperovitz expanded upon this thesis in the 1990s.) Other historians suggested that racism and motives of revenge played a significant role in shaping the U.S. decision. This debate reached its boiling point in the early 1990s, as the Smithsonian’s attempt to create a “revisionist” display to mark the bomb’s 50th anniversary became a lightning rod in the “culture wars” between a Democratic administration and a resurgent Republican Congress.
Were the atomic bombs necessary to get the Japanese to surrender? Would other, more humane, options have worked, such as a demonstration to the Japanese of the bomb’s power? We’ll never know with certainty the answer to such questions. Perhaps if the U.S. had been more explicit in their negotiations with Japan that “unconditional surrender” did not mean the end of Japan’s Emperor, the Japanese may have surrendered earlier, before the A-bomb was fully ready. Then again, U.S. flexibility could have been interpreted by Japanese hardliners as a sign of American weakness or war fatigue.
Unwilling to risk appearing weak or weary, U.S. leaders dropped the A-bomb to shock the Japanese into surrendering. Together with Stalin’s entry into the war against Japan, these shocks were sufficient to convince the Japanese emperor “to bear the unbearable,” in this case total capitulation, a national disgrace.
A longer war in the Pacific — if only a matter of weeks — would indeed have meant higher casualties among the Allies, since the Japanese were prepared to mount large-scale Kamikaze attacks. Certainly, the Allies were unwilling to risk losing men when they had a bomb available that promised results. The mentality seems to have been: We developed it. We have it. Let’s use it. Anything to get this war over with as quickly as possible.
That mentality was not humane, but it was human. Truman had a weapon that promised decisiveness, so he used it. The attack on Hiroshima was basically business as usual, especially when you consider the earlier firebombing raids led by General Curtis LeMay. Indeed, such “conventional” firebombing raids continued after Hiroshima and Nagasaki until the Japanese finally sent a clear signal of surrender.
Of course, an event as momentous, as horrific, as Hiroshima took on extra meaning after the war, given the nuclear arms race, the Cold War and a climate represented by the telling acronym of MAD (mutually assured destruction). U.S. decisionmakers like Truman were portrayed as callous, as racist, as war criminals. Yet in the context of 1945, it’s difficult to see any other U.S. president making a different decision, especially given Japan’s apparent reluctance to surrender and their proven fanaticism at Iwo Jima, Okinawa and elsewhere.
As Andrew Rotter notes in Hiroshima: The World’s Bomb (2008),World War II witnessed the weakening, if not erasure, of distinctions between combatants and non-combatants, notably during LeMay’s firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 but in many other raids as well (Rotterdam and Coventry and Hamburg and Dresden, among so many others). In his book, Rotter supports the American belief that Japan would fight even more fanatically for their home islands than they did at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, two horrendous battles in 1945 that preceded the bomb. But he argues that Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson engaged in “self-deception” when they envisioned that the effects of the atomic bomb could be limited to “a purely military” target.
A quarter of a million Japanese died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in the years and decades following. They died horrible deaths. And their deaths serve as a warning to us all of the awful nature of war and the terrible destructiveness of nuclear weapons.
Hans Bethe worked on the bomb during the Manhattan Project. A decent, humane, and thoughtful man, he nevertheless worked hard to create a weapon of mass destruction. His words of reflection have always stayed with me. They come in Jon Else’s powerful documentary, “The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb.”
Here is what Bethe said (edited slightly):
The first reaction we [scientists] had [after Hiroshima] was one of fulfillment. Now it has been done. The second reaction was one of shock and awe: What have we done? What have we done. The third reaction was it should never be done again.
It should never be done again: Just typing those words here from memory sends chills up my spine.
Let us hope it is never done again. Let us hope a nuclear weapon is never used again. For that way madness lies.
In 2006, I presented the following talk on Jewish resistance to the Holocaust. It’s a dangerous myth, and sadly a common one, that Jewish people did not resist the Nazis in meaningful or effective ways. From this myth stems a far more insidious one: that Jewish people were somehow complicit in the murderous campaigns against them. I gave this paper to counter these dangerous myths.
The Nazis exterminated nearly six million Jews during World War II. Those who claim that Jews went meekly like sheep to the slaughter ignore the many instances of remarkable courage in the face of this staggering crime against humanity. In reality, Jewish resistance took many forms. That it often proved futile reflects the poignant vulnerability of Jews rather than any lack of bravery or courage.
Resistance can be divided into two general categories: passive and active. Passive resistance took the form of cultural and spiritual endurance and assertiveness. Jews confined to ghettos like Warsaw continued to practice their culture and religion despite prohibitions; they organized symphonies, drama clubs, schools, and other voluntary and educational associations; they also risked their lives by trading across ghetto walls despite threats of torture and execution.
Passive resistance drew on a long and esteemed Jewish tradition of outlasting the persecutor. Initially believing that the Nazis and their various European sympathizers and lackeys wanted to put Jews in their place, not in their graves, Jewish leaders sought to endure discriminatory laws, pogroms, and deportations, hoping for an eventual relaxation of anti-Semitic policies or perhaps even the defeat of their oppressors on the battlefield.
Thus Jewish resistance remained largely non-violent until 1943, in part because the Germans succeeded in deceiving the Jews. They were helped in this by the fact that their predecessors—the German soldiers of World War I—had generally behaved decently, treating Jewish non-combatants humanely. Jews in Poland and the East initially expected similar behavior from Nazi invaders. Even after it became apparent to Jews that Nazi soldiers and especially police were intent on human butchery on a scale previously unimaginable, Jewish cultures that embraced sanctity and sheer joy of life found it difficult to comprehend a Nazi culture built on hate and murderous brutality, especially one that continued to worship civilized icons like Goethe and Beethoven. Many Jews put their faith in God, hoping for the best, preparing for the worst, yet daring not at first to think the unthinkable.
When Jewish communities and individuals recognized the unthinkable—that the Nazis and their various European fellow travelers wanted to exterminate systematically all Jews in Europe—active and armed resistance increased. Active resistance included acts of industrial sabotage in munitions factories or isolated bombings of known gathering spots of Nazis. One must recognize, however, the near utter futility of Jews “winning” pitched battles against their killers. The Nazis had machine guns, dogs, usually superior numbers, and could call on tanks, artillery, and similar weapons of industrialized modern warfare. Facing them were Jewish resisters, often unarmed, some at best having pistols or rifles with limited ammunition, perhaps supplemented by a few precious hand grenades. Such unequal odds often made the final result tragically predictable, yet many Jews decided it was better to die fighting than to face extermination in a death camp.
When it became apparent that they were being deported to Treblinka to be gassed, Warsaw Jews at first refused to assemble, then led a ghetto uprising in April 1943 whose ferocity surprised the Germans. More than 2000 German soldiers supported by armored cars, machine guns, flamethrowers, and unlimited ammunition faced approximately 750 Jews with little to no military training. The SS General in command, Jürgen Stroop, had estimated he would need two days to suppress the uprising. In fact, he needed a full month as Jews armed mainly with pistols, homemade grenades, and Molotov cocktails fought franticly and ferociously from street to street, bunker to bunker. The Warsaw ghetto uprising was only the most famous example of nearly 60 other armed uprisings in Jewish ghettos.
Resistance was less common in death camps like Chelmno, Sobibor, and Treblinka, mainly because there was not enough time for networks of resistance to form. Resistance requires leaders, organization, and weapons. These elements cannot be improvised and acted upon in a few hours or even days: they require months of planning and training. Despite nearly insurmountable difficulties, however, Jews did lead revolts at all three of these death camps as well as at Auschwitz-Birkenau and 18 forced-labor camps.
Jews also participated actively in resistance networks in Poland, the Soviet Union, France, and other countries. Their plight was difficult in the extreme, since anti-Semitism within these networks often required Jews to hide their ethnicity. In some cells of the Polish resistance, Jews were killed outright. Many Soviet partisans distrusted and exploited Jews; nevertheless, between 20,000 and 30,000 Jews fought as partisans in the USSR against Nazi invaders. In France, Jews made up less than one percent of the population yet 15 to 20 percent of the French underground. In 1944, nearly 2000 Jewish resisters in France united to form the Organisation Juive de Combat (Jewish Fighting Organization), which supported Allied military operations by attacking railway lines and German military installations and factories.
Impressive as it was, Jewish resistance was always hamstrung for several reasons. In general, Jews lacked combat experience since many countries forbade Jewish citizens from serving in the military. Like Soviet prisoners-of-war (POWs) captured by the Nazis, many Jews, especially those confined in ghettos, were weakened by disease and deliberate starvation. Under these conditions, trained Soviet soldiers died with hardly a murmur of protest, so it is hardly surprising that Jewish families who had never been exposed to the hardships of war would similarly succumb.
The Nazis succeeded in creating a Hobbesian state of nature in which people were so focused on surviving from hour to hour that their struggles consumed virtually all their energy and attention. Dissension within Jewish communities also inhibited resistance, with older Jews and members of Judenräte (Jewish councils) tending to support a policy of limited cooperation with the Nazis, hoping that by contributing to the German war effort, they might thereby preserve the so-called productive elements of Jewish communities.
More controversially, Jewish resistance was hampered by weak and irresolute international support. Fearing that Nazi propaganda would exploit pro-Jewish statements as proof that a Jewish-Bolshevist conspiracy was behind the war, Western leaders refrained from condemning Nazi actions. Official Catholic and Protestant statements were equally tentative and tepid. Irresolute and sporadic support unintentionally played into the hands of Nazi plans for Jewish extermination.
Observant Jews were people of God’s law, the Torah, who put their faith in God, with Jewish culture in general tending to disavow militant actions. Confronted by murderous killing squads possessing all the tools of industrialized mass warfare, Jews nevertheless resisted courageously, both passively and actively. That their resistance often ended tragically does not mean that it failed.
President Obama’s decision to deploy 3,000 troops to Liberia in Africa to assist in efforts to contain Ebola got me to thinking about the military as white blood cells. As a military officer, I took an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. In a sense, I was vowing to defend the collective body politic just as white blood cells defend our individual bodies against “enemy” invaders.
But when was the last time the United States faced invaders who posed a virulent and direct threat to our existence? Invaders who directly attacked (or planned to attack) and utterly defeat our body politic? You’d have to go back to World War II and Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor; similarly, Nazi Germany did have plans (that were never implemented) to take its world war to U.S. shores once the Soviet Union and Britain were defeated. Fortunately, our body mobilized its “white blood cells” and defeated (with lots of help from our allies) these enemies before they could afflict our vitals here at home.
Jump ahead to 2001 and the al Qaeda attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Yes, they were serious and shocking and traumatic. But compared to the Nazis and the Japanese in World War II (true cancers), al Qaeda was the equivalent to a 24-hour “bug,” violent in the extreme, but ultimately not a serious long-term threat to the health of America.
By calling 9/11 a “bug,” I don’t mean to diminish the tragedy of 9/11 for those who lost loved ones. It’s just that repeats of 9/11-like attacks were not possible: al Qaeda simply lacked the resources to sustain them. There was no “cancer” that could metastasize. So there was no need to deploy our white blood cells (our troops) in extended wars, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, the latter country of which had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11.
Now we have the President referring to the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) as a “cancer” that must be eradicated, even though that “cancer” has no means of attacking the body that is our country. Despite this fact, the U.S. is deploying its white blood cells yet again to quash a threat that for our nation simply doesn’t exist.
From medicine, we know that overactive white blood cells can be as dangerous as underactive ones. White blood cells are part of our immune systems; when these systems are overactive, they convert non-threats into threats. Sometimes that results in violent allergic reactions that can lead to death. Other times, one’s own immune system turns on healthy tissue within one’s body. The immune system itself becomes a cancer, eating away at the body in misdirected attempts to defend it.
Whenever the U.S. faces a “threat” nowadays, our leaders treat it aggressively as a “cancer” even when the threat poses no direct peril to us. American presidents, whether they’re named Bush or Obama, eagerly deploy America’s antibodies — the military — to search and destroy bad terrorist cells. But the USA is like a patient whose antibodies have run wild, a patient whose antibodies have turned on external threats even when they’re not threats, a patient whose antibodies are now attacking healthy tissue within the American body politic.
Consider the fact that U.S. presidents commit the troops — our nation’s antibodies — to wars against “cancers” without formal declarations of war by Congress. In the name of protecting America, they violate the Constitution that our troops are sworn to uphold. They fail to recognize it’s their actions that pose the true threat to the Constitution. It’s their actions that constitute the cancer.
The invasive “cure” of continuous military action without oversight exercised by the people is truly worse than the disease, for it’s a “cure” that violates our Constitution and weakens our body politic.
Recent news that the planned Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C. remains in trouble greatly saddens me. When I was young, I considered myself a moderate Republican/conservative Democrat. I recall favoring Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election. My idea of a Democrat was someone like Senators Scoop Jackson and Sam Nunn, supporters of a hard line against the Soviet Union. To me, these men appeared to be pragmatic, tough-minded, and willing to put country before partisan politics — much like Ike himself.
Ike, of course, was a Republican but could have run as a Democrat. Indeed, today’s Republican Party would probably reject men like Ike and Gerald Ford. They wouldn’t pass certain litmus tests in the primaries on issues like abortion or gun rights or school prayer and the like. More’s the pity for our country.
Back in February 2012, I wrote this article (at Huff Post) on “Why I Still Like Ike.” When you read Ike’s warning below about too much money being spent on weaponry, and his prophecy about the disastrous influence of the Military-Industrial Complex, ask yourself whether any mainstream political candidate today of either party would dare to denounce major weapons makers and America’s propensity for war with such clarity and guts.
Instead, today we have Democrats wetting themselves in their eagerness to appear tough (witness Vice President Biden’s comment about confronting the Islamic State at “the gates of hell”), and Republicans eager to bomb everything in sight.
Ike wasn’t perfect, but we sure could use a person of his courage and gravitas in 2016. Chris Christie or Hillary Clinton, anyone? Forget about it.
Why I Still Like Ike (2012)
The ongoing controversy over the national memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower provides us with an opportunity to recall Ike’s legacy and his deeper meaning to America. Ike was of course a national hero, the supreme allied commander who led the assault at D-Day on June 6, 1944 and who later served as president during the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. His legacies are many and profound, from ending the Korean War to the interstate highway system that bears his name to advancing civil rights to creating the space program to the establishment of the department of health, education and welfare.
As important as Ike’s deeds were to our country, in some way his words were (and are) even more important, especially in this time of constant war and bloated budgets for “defense” and our burgeoning trade in deadly weaponry.
Ike was a citizen-soldier first and foremost, not a warrior or warfighter, and like the citizen-soldiers of World War II he came to hate war. This is not to say that Ike was a pacifist. He believed in a strong defense and intervened in countries such as Iran, Guatemala, Lebanon, Formosa, and South Vietnam, in order in his words to prevent “communist efforts to dominate” these countries. And we may certainly question the legality as well as the wisdom of these “wars in the shadows,” especially with respect to Iran and Vietnam.
But let us focus on Ike’s words — his lessons to America. Grossly underestimated by intellectuals who were deceived by his amiable public demeanor and his love of golf (with its country-club associations), Ike was a fine writer and a deep thinker who thoroughly understood the American heartland — and the American heart.
Any memorial to Ike should seek to capture the wisdom of his words and how they struck to the very core of the American (and human) experience. It should confront us with his words and encourage us to contemplate their meaning in a setting conducive to reflection and reconsideration.
First, let’s consider what Ike said about war. In a speech at the Canada Club in Ottawa on Jan. 10, 1946, Ike stated:
“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”
Let all Americans pause and reflect on the hard-earned wisdom of that statement before plotting our next military intervention.
Second, let’s consider what Ike said about the true cost of spending on military weaponry. In remarks prepared for the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1953, Ike declared that:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
Third, let’s consider Ike’s final warning upon leaving office in 1961 about the dangers of a growing “military-industrial complex” to democracy and freedom in America. In his words:
The conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
Ike’s tersely prophetic words are rarely heard in American political discourse today. Indeed, his avowed hatred of war, his condemnation of the deadly weapons trade as contrary to human values, his warning about an emergent military-industrial complex with the power to threaten our liberties, would likely be dismissed in this year’s election season, whether by mainstream Democrats or Republicans, as the ravings of a left-wing, weak-kneed, liberal.
All the more reason why these words need to be enshrined in a national memorial to Eisenhower.
One more lesson Ike can impart to us: the virtue of humility. In spite of his immense accomplishments, Ike remained a humble man. Doubtless this humility stemmed from his upbringing, but so too did it come from his military service. As he himself wrote, “Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in blood of his followers and sacrifices of his friends.”
In this age of American exceptionalism, in which our nation touts its “generation of heroes” and boasts of its unrivaled military power, Ike’s words remind us that humility is far more becoming a man and a nation.
Even the most powerful nation may fall if it loses itself in its own celebratory braggadocio. Ike knew this, and if despite his efforts such a fate had happened on his watch, he doubtless would have taken full responsibility. Consider here the words Ike prepared in case the D-Day attack had failed on June 6, 1944. This was what Ike was prepared to say:
Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.
Fortunately for history, Ike never had to say those words. Left unsaid, they nevertheless live on as an example of Ike’s willingness to bear unselfishly the burden of defeat, even as he humbly bore the laurels of victory.
Whatever final form the national memorial to Ike eventually assumes, I sincerely and fervently hope it enshrines the wisdom, the courage, the humility, the humanity of Ike’s words, so desperately do we need these qualities today.
For Ike knew that America’s true strength resides not in the size of our arsenals but in the generosity of our spirit.