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The truth about the "good war"

October 19, 2007 | Page 8

KEN BURNS' documentary series The War, airing during September and October on PBS, presents many of the same timeworn myths used to justify the Second World War as a noble battle for democracy against tyranny. DONNY SCHRAFFENBERGER tells the other side of the story.

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THE SECOND World War is viewed by most Americans as the "good war"--or at least a necessary one.

The Axis powers fought by the U.S. and its allies were, indeed, nasty and brutal regimes. Japan's militarist government launched a war against China beginning in the early 1930s that killed millions. Mussolini's Italian fascists rampaged through Ethiopia and North Africa.

And of course, Germany's Nazis slaughtered their political opponents, carried out the Holocaust of 6 million European Jews and exterminated between 3 million and 5 million others, including ethnic minorities, socialists, unionists, gays and lesbians, and other "undesirables."

But the usual portrayal of the Second World War minimizes the atrocities carried out by the Allied powers--and even justifies them as unavoidable lapses in a war against evil regimes that had to be destroyed at all costs.

So it is with Ken Burns' multi-part documentary The War.

What else to read

For a more comprehensive (26 hours long!) and far more accurate documentary series on the Second World War, though not from a left-wing point of view, look for Thames Television's The World at War, narrated by Laurence Olivier.

Roll Me Over by Raymond Gantter is a very good personal account of a U.S. infantryman's survival in 1944-1945 and the horrors of the war. Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse-Five describes the firebombing of Dresden and the nightmarish aftermath.

Sidney Lens' The Forging of the American Empire provides a left-wing account of the U.S. government's imperialist interests in the war. Also excellent are these articles from the International Socialist Review: "World War II: The good war?" by Ashley Smith; "The occupation of Japan," also by Ashley Smith; and "The U.S. occupation of Germany," by Jeff Bale.


To his credit, Burns does show injustices within the U.S. during the Second World War--such as the internment of Japanese-Americans, who were viewed by the Roosevelt government as an "enemy within." Also, racism against African Americans in the war industry and the hypocrisy of a segregated military are documented.

But Burns, like most mainstream U.S. historians of the war, focuses on Americans at the expense of the rest of the world.

As a result, he understates or neglects to mention at all the horrific truth about the Second World War--that civilians became legitimate, if not the main, targets of not only the Axis powers, but the Allies.

At the beginning of the war, Germany bombed Poland and western European cities, causing civilian deaths on a large scale. The six months of the German blitz against Britain killed 40,000. These attacks were rightly seen as atrocities.

But the Allies responded in kind. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave the okay for the Royal Air Force to target German civilians.

As author Sven Lindqvist writes in A History of Bombing, "British air attacks on Hamburg killed more people than all German air attacks against English cities put together. About 50,000 died in a single night, the night of July 27, 1943. The majority of them were women, children and old people."

On February 13, 1945--with the Nazis nearly defeated--the German city of Dresden was slated for annihilation. Britain's bombardment caused a firestorm so severe that corpses were reduced to ash, making only an approximate body count possible. Estimates suggest that 100,000 people were killed.

The U.S., meanwhile, applied the same policy against Japan in the Pacific war. On March 9, 1945, Tokyo came under attack--U.S. incendiary bombs killed 100,000 and left 1 million residents homeless.

By July 1945, 66 of Japan's largest cities were burned to the ground. Only four major urban targets remained unscathed--Hiroshima and Nagasaki were two of them. The stage was set for the use of the ultimate weapon: the atomic bomb.

On August 6, 1945, the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, planning the attack purposely for the morning rush hour. Some 100,000 people were killed instantly, 95 percent of them civilians. Another 100,000 would die over time from radiation poisoning. Two days later, the US bombed Nagasaki, with the same catastrophic effect.

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ALL THESE Allied war crimes continue to be seen as necessary to win a war that had to be won against a uniquely evil enemy.

But the U.S. government wasn't fighting for lofty goals of democracy and freedom. If the German and Japanese governments had expansionist aims to take over chunks of the globe, so did the U.S. and its allies.

The Second World War, like the First, was a clash between rival empires over which would dominate the globe.

Thus, for example, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and other U.S. bases in the Pacific, this was seen as an attack on U.S. soil. But the U.S. had conquered these areas in the decades leading up to the Second World War. In reality, the U.S. ruling class wanted to stop Japan's expansion to prevent a rival from getting a greater foothold in the Pacific and Asia.

The same interests were at stake for the U.S. and its weaker allies in the European war. If you read Winston Churchill's writings about the war, you find one passage after another about imperial deals made between himself, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin of the USSR to carve up the world.

Churchill wasn't committed to stopping Nazism or Italian fascism. In fact, he admitted to liking the way Mussolini's regime smashed the socialist and communist left in Italy. But the Axis powers were preventing Britain from holding onto its empire.

The cynicism is evident in a passage of Churchill's memoirs in which he describes a meeting with Stalin in Moscow in October 1944, to discuss the future of the Balkans in southeast Europe. According to Churchill:

The moment was apt for business, so I said, "Let us settle about our affairs in the Balkans. Your armies are in Romania and Bulgaria. We have interests, missions and agents there. Don't let us get at cross-purposes in small ways. So far as Britain and Russia are concerned, how would it do for you to have 90 percent predominance in Romania, for us to have 90 percent of the say in Greece, and go 50-50 about Yugoslavia?"

While this was being translated, I wrote out [the formula] on a half-sheet of paper...I pushed this across to Stalin, who had by then heard the translation. There was a slight pause. Then he took his blue pencil and made a large tick upon it, and passed it back to us. It was all settled in no more time than it takes to set down.

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ANOTHER MYTH about the Second World War is that was uniquely popular among Americans. Given the scale of the opposition to the U.S. war on Vietnam, and now the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, it's easy to see why people would think the Second World War was different.

But the statistics tell a different story. American men didn't jump to join the military during the Second World War. In the First World War, 72 percent of the military's 3.5 million men were draftees. In the Second World War, 63 percent were drafted--10.1 million out of a total of 16 million serving in the armed forces.

Without the draft, the U.S. could never have fought the Second World War. The "greatest generation" had to be coerced into serving through the threat of imprisonment.

By contrast, only 8 percent of the Union Army during the Civil War was drafted. The Union soldiers rightly believed the war was the Second American Revolution, and that defeating the power of the Southern slaveholders held the promise of a better tomorrow.

The Second World War ended with the U.S. as the main imperialist victors. All of the other major Allied powers were devastated by huge civilian casualties, their cities ruined. The USSR alone lost 20 million people, most of them civilians.

The U.S. provided the final proof that the war wasn't fought for democracy when it pressed this advantage to dominate the globe in the years that followed the Second World War. The first act of the coming Cold War had come with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki--carried out not out of necessity to defeat Japan, but as a warning to the only other rival superpower, the USSR.

Sadly, Ken Burns' documentary doesn't delve into the reality behind the myths spun about the Second World War.

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