The American “Good War” vs. the German “Bad War”: World War II Memory Cultures

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Mr. Bischof is the 2003/4 Marshall Plan Professor of Austrian Studies and Director of CenterAustria at the University of New Orleans and editor of “Die Invasion in der Normandie 1944: Internationale Perspektiven (Innsbruck: Studienverlag 2002).

In 1955 an Austrian member of Parliament shrewdly observed that the most significant developments in the international arena were "the Americanization of Germany and the Prussication ["Verrpeußung"] of America."

Germany had tried to conquer Europe twice in the first half of the twentieth century and failed. After World War II a four-power occupation divided the country along Cold War ideological fault lines. In West Germany the Anglo-American presence left an extraordinary legacy. A careful planned -- and initially stern -- occupation regime launched the "politics of de- and dis-." With the initial purge of denazification the Western zones were democratized, holding their first free election in 1949. Twenty-two top-Nazi leaders were put on trial at Nuremberg and twelve of them hanged for starting a war of expansion and annihilation and committing crimes against humanity.

Meanwhile New Deal-type programs began decartelizing the German economy while at the same time reconstructing it with Marshall aid and feeding the German population through the hunger years of the immediate postwar period. West Germany was rapidly "Americanized" and Coca-Cola colonized with an avalanche of popular culture and consumerism. In the words of historian Reinhold Wagnleitner, the highly successful "Marilyn Monroe Doctrine" replaced the "Monroe Doctrine." West Germany became the U.S.'s most reliable ally on the continent.

A strict disarmament of Germany was launched, yet both German states were rearmed by the mid-1950s and incorporated in the postwar alliance systems, NATO and the Warsaw Pact. West Germany was closely supervised with the West's ingenious "dual containment" strategy (contain the Soviet with German manpower while containing the Germans within the NATO framework). To this day the Germans are prohibited from building ABC weapon systems (atomic, biological, and chemical weapons).

The most important legacy of the postwar occupation may well have been an ever more prevalent German pacifism in all political camps (not only in the Green Party where it is strongest). Only in the post-Cold War era have Germans begun to participate in "out of area" Western military interventions (Kosovo, Afghanistan). Young Germans abhor war and would rather not serve in the military and since the Vietnam War have become ever more critical of American military adventures abroad. The formerly deeply rooted Prussian military tradition was obliterated by the highly successful Anglo-American postwar occupation regime that produced prosperity and the "Wirtschaftswunder" instead of resentment and rejection.

A post-Nuremberg memory culture was forced on the Germans that stressed the horrid war crimes committed by Germans during war. The German memory regime of World War II for the past fifty years has stressed the "bad war." The concentration camps and the memory of the Holocaust have become central sites of German World War II memory. While in 1994 the Anglo-Americans celebrated their fiftieth anniversary of the D-Day invasion at the cemeteries in Normandy in their usual martial fashion with parades and presidential speeches of soldierly sacrifice and valor, the Germans commemorated a rare "good" memory event of the war - the assassination attempt by officers on Hitler on July 20. In the second half of the 1990s a powerful exhibit documenting the war crimes of the German Wehrmacht traveled through Germany and Austria. Veterans organizations tried to stop it but failed. It is this memory of the terrible German World War II past more than anything that has so deeply ingrained the postwar pacifism among younger Germans.

Meanwhile the United States has become a militarized society in peacetime and sports a martial pride and attendant hyperpatriotism in its mainstream culture and ethos that is reminiscent of old Prussia. As the leader of the Western world, the U.S. has built the most powerful armed forces and destructive weapons systems the world has ever seen. During the Cold War the Americans spent up to 30 percent of its budget on the military. They established an awesome global base system that allows the U.S. to project its power swiftly and devastatingly when needed. It has fought long wars in Korea and Vietnam and intervened dozens of time around the world when it saw its national interests threatened.

This acceptance of a permanent peace-time military establishment and global power projection after World War II has much to do with the hard-won victories and the subsequent American memory regime of the "good war." Actually, the cultural production in the years after the war maintained an ambivalent and darker view of the war which had dehumanized so many of its young soldiers in the epic battles in the Pacific and in Europe. Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead and Joseph Heller's Catch-22 stand for this darker view.

But since the 1980s D-Day commemorations turned uncompromisingly patriotic and the cultural production celebratory of the "greatest generation" that lived through the Depression and rose to victory during World War II. Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and the ten-part TV series "Band of Brothers" signify a patriotic memory of World War II that celebrates the "good war." The late historian Stephen E. Ambrose has done more than anyone to enshrine this new view in his books and in the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans. In the words of historian Chad Barry "the good war thesis became a powerfully seductive and intoxicating view of an idealized past and a golden age."

A major turning point in enforcing this new "good war" memory regime was the controversy over the "Enola Gay" exhibit in the Smithonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Whereas the initial more scholarly concept envisioned placing the dropping of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima fifty years ago within the larger concept of the racist and dehumanizing "war without mercy" in the Pacific theater, the veterans' lobbying groups forced this concept to be ditched. Instead, a filiopietistic much smaller exhibit was shown beholden to the "good war" paradigm. While in Germany the veterans' organization had failed to salvage their selective memories of the killing fields on the Eastern front, in the United States the veterans succeeded in enforcing their one-sided memory of heroic marines and valiant sailors. Their killing frenzies in the island campaign and trophy taking of Japanese body parts was purged from the public memory.

While the upcoming sixtieth anniversary celebrations in Normandy surely will continue to invoke the "good war" and the "Prussian" martial ethos at a time when America is at war again in Iraq, in democratic Germany an anti-war pacifism is stronger than ever. Little did the Austrian observer quoted above know how clairvoyant he would was in predicting two compelling trajectories of the postwar international world.

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Ashleigh Barrett - 12/1/2004

I found this article really helpful for my assessment. Im currently in yr 12 doing extension history and i'm researching the 'truth' in the D-Day invasion. I'm trying to find some good links that show at least a German historical persepective of the invasion. Can anyone help me?

Steven L. Frank - 6/5/2004

Mr. Gorbachev; TEAR DOWN THIS WAll!!!!!!!

Stephen Vinson - 6/4/2004

I'm the one who wrote...

>A guy controls tens of millions of people.

Disagree with him, you get shot.

You can call that a sovereign country.

I call it a plantation.

Iraqis had as much control over their own sovereignty as the members of a plantation in the Ante Bellum South.

Never run from a debate you can win. I won't.<

on your own thread...

which you ran away from...

I'm sure you forgot this within the space of one day.

No, really.

The dust trails from your feet spread up a mighty fine mist.

Begone, oh mysterious sprinter! And tell all who would argue in defense of Saddam Hussein and tinpot dictators that (should they ever come to the HNN Board) Stephen Vinson is here to debate!

Arnold Shcherban - 6/4/2004

Wait a minute...

Are you the one who once wrote that Iraq wasn't a sovereign state before the US invasion?
If the answer is 'yes', my position remains the same: I don't debate with dishonest type, who denies factual truth.
Logical, ideological, etc. - is OK, but not factual.

Stephen Vinson - 6/3/2004

Um . . . who are you responding to?

I didn’t write that post.

I’m sure Steve L. Frank would be happy to reply.

Feel free to have my take. [just don’t run from the debate this time…]

>(Oops, I'm sorry, the American imperialism doens't exist)?<

When did I say American imperialism doesn’t exist?

>According to you the US major concern to promote freedom and democracy around the world<

When did I say that?

I’m sure the guy who said all this stuff is having a heart attack right now.

When you get to an argument I made, let me know.

I will say we support democracy and freedom better than anybody else, currently, and better than anyone would if they were the only superpower. Remember - when it comes to foreign countries, it’s not that I think we’re perfect / it’s that I think we’re better than you.


Yep, Iranians hate us.

They’d spit at us.

This is why tens of thousands were demonstrating in the streets for us a few months ago. It’s why even more massive gatherings held candlelight vigils for us after 9/11. It’s why the reigning mullahs regularly have to rig elections and are in utter fear of a popular uprising.

Why not list the Israelis while you’re at it?

Unless you’ve noticed lately, we’re not that unpopular in Iran.


Vietnamese regularly curse hills and ground on which our soldiers fought their military dictatorship. They look in utter horror at the poverty and injustice of Japan and South Korea that could have been their fate. Their, but for the grace of God . . .

Why just cite Vietnam. Go all the way. List North Korea.

>Philippines <

"Damn the Americans, why don't they tyrannize us more?" -Manuel Quezon


I myself admire Palestinian democracy and freedom. How could we have ever opposed it?




Viva Pol Pot!


You’ve got to be kidding me.

>innumerable victims of murderous regimes all over the world(Central and South America, Africa, Asia), installed, or/and sponsored, or/and supported by this country.<

I’ve asked it before. I’ll ask it again. Would you rather live Cuba/Venezuala or Panama/Chile?

Arnold Shcherban - 6/3/2004

Mr. Vinson,

According to you the US major concern to promote freedom and democracy around the world and therefore there can be, at the best, very remote analogy between German militarism and imperialism and the American one(Oops,
I'm sorry, the American imperialism doens't exist)?

Tell this to people of Indochina(Vietnam, Cambodia,
Laos), to the Japanese victims of the US A-bombing,
to the Fillipinos(not of Markus type) who know history of their country, to Serbs, to Iranians, Syrians,
Iraqis, Afganis, Palestinians, Jordanians, to the innumerable victims of murderous regimes all over the world(Central and South America, Africa, Asia), installed, or/and sponsored, or/and supported by this country.
If you are lucky, they will laugh to your face, or curse
you, if not - they'll spit on you, or kick your behind.
I know: it would not be politically correct, but, alas, those folks are rude by nature.(Actually you got lucky already, since I felt tired creating the list of those victims and stopped much earlier than could.)

Charles V. Mutschler - 6/2/2004

Frank's _Downfall_ does a rather effective job of undercutting the arguments Mr. Larison makes in his final paragraph. In short, there seems to be precious little evidence to support the thesis that the Japanese were ready to end the war, or that there were alternatives that would have brought about a Japanese surrender with a lower loss of life than the atomic bombings.

I think I'd agree with Alonzo Hamby's assessment of the Enola Gay exhibit as one sided, and not very good history. This is paraphrased from a review he wrote on several books dealing with the end of the war that appeared in the Journal of American History.

Charles V. Mutschler

Stephen Vinson - 6/2/2004

>Of course, intellectual justifications for campaigns are often not genuinely accepted by the politicians who launch the campaigns, but I am trying to say that there is much less difference between our own erstwhile liberations and Prussian and German rhetoric (and action) concerning the purposes of their wars.<

>Obviously, the treatment of the Hereros was abominable, albeit typical of colonialist ventures, and it is not my purpose to legitimise German imperial ventures as such. I was trying to make the case that calling something Prussian need not imply either political reaction, although it could, nor amoral militarism. One can still find the militarism reprehensible in the Prussian case, but the important point of the original article was to recognise that similar processes have been at work in our country for decades.<

I still see the analogy between Prussian and American militarism as too tenuous for a useful comparison. Bischof’s main connections seem to be just that the military is considered a source pride in the U.S. and it’s incredibly powerful. He leaves out one gigantic issue for anybody trying to make an analogy between these two cultures: the draft.

The U.S. obviously abolished the draft in the 70s. That fact alone should make comparing the United States to early 20th century Prussia like comparing the U.K. (or even Prussia) to Sparta. I wish I had A.J.P. Taylor’s work in front of me, but if I remember correctly, the percent of the population that was expected to have some training (from a regular grocery store clerk, milkman, etc. on down) and serve was unreal. It isn’t useful to compare a military culture pervading the entire populace of Prussia/Germany to any country with a volunteer army.

More importantly, when the U.S. is involved in military action nowadays, it’s not with any expectation that the field of battle will eventually become U.S. territory. The only times you would have seen that from Prussia/turn of century Germany was when they didn’t think they were capable of holding on to it. An analogy with the U.S. would be much easier in decades past than it is today.

>To say that Iraqis are in some sense still better off than they were under the dictatorship does not automatically mean that they are now free.<


>At least these people believed they were being liberated or believed they were liberating themselves with German aid. We cannot say as much for the Iraqis anymore--and if they don't believe it, can it really be true? More to the point, even if it is true, what will it accomplish if no one in the country believes it?<

Disagree there. The Kurds certainly believe it; the Shia, somewhat; the Sunni, much less. In the polls, they express a lot of dissatisfaction with the U.S. and Britain while being very glad Saddam Hussein is gone and now having optimism for the future. That they’re able to voice their opinions, on its own, makes me regard them as freer. As far as I’m concerned, Saddam Hussein being gone = accomplishment.

Steven L. Frank - 6/1/2004

The purpose of the Prussian contribution to the Napoleanic Wars was not to free any subject people, not foreign and certainly not its own. They fought to protect the Prussian Aristocracy and to put down a "people's war". Indeed the German populace revolted against their Prussian overlords in 1848 and moved in mass to America when it failed.

As to wars against "ism's"; ideological war is not an alien concept in American Warfare. The Revolutionary War was very much a "Libertarian" based war. Most of America's Wars with the exception of the Spanish American War and the Mexican War were fought for ideological reasons and were for the most part forced upon it.

The lesson America learned from World War Two is to never believe that an ideological enemy can be appeased or ignored. As to the inevitability of total war against Islamofascism, I certainly am not a Hegalian. Obviously things can go in any number of directions. I for one doubt that our Islamofascist enemies will rest until they provoke such an outpouring of destruction upon themselves by America's armed forces that nothing will grow in Southwest Asia for generations.

If America's so called "friends and allies" wish to restrain American power in order to preserve some semblence (facade) of international comnity; they ought to start working their a## off to root out islamofascism before America uncorks the 21'st Century version of Total War.

Daniel B. Larison - 6/1/2004

Obviously, the treatment of the Hereros was abominable, albeit typical of colonialist ventures, and it is not my purpose to legitimise German imperial ventures as such. I was trying to make the case that calling something Prussian need not imply either political reaction, although it could, nor amoral militarism. One can still find the militarism reprehensible in the Prussian case, but the important point of the original article was to recognise that similar processes have been at work in our country for decades.

Of course, intellectual justifications for campaigns are often not genuinely accepted by the politicians who launch the campaigns, but I am trying to say that there is much less difference between our own erstwhile liberations and Prussian and German rhetoric (and action) concerning the purposes of their wars. The states propped up by the Germans in the east, except for the Ukraine, were representative republics, and they continued to be until Stalin crushed most of them. Obviously, a Latvian communist would not regard a White victory as liberation, but in terms of national independence and form of government replacing the Russian system it was a liberation. Flemish nationalists were republicans, and they would have, I assume, set up their own republican government as a German satellite in the wake of a German victory. At least these people believed they were being liberated or believed they were liberating themselves with German aid. We cannot say as much for the Iraqis anymore--and if they don't believe it, can it really be true? More to the point, even if it is true, what will it accomplish if no one in the country believes it?

To say that Iraqis are in some sense still better off than they were under the dictatorship does not automatically mean that they are now free. Liberty is more than the absence of a coercive, arbitrary government or a reduction in the extent of arbitrariness, and right now Iraqis are still subject to such a government. That it is less coercive and less arbitrary than another such regime does not make those subject to it significantly more free.

Grant W Jones - 6/1/2004

I missed the Zuckerman article. I guess this is going to be a weekly thing at HNN.

Grant W Jones - 6/1/2004

Dear Mr. Severance,

Thank you for your response. The U.S.Army did need a dose of professionalism in the late 1800s. Prussia having recently defeated France was considered to be the best army in the world (although, man for man, the British army probably was). Japan also modeled their army after Prussia, did they not?

Brishof goes further in equating American culture of today, with that of Prussian culture of a hundred years ago, weird. Last week there was an article on HNN claiming that contemporary America is Weimar Germany. This week there is an article claiming America is Prussia. Methinks the folks at HNN are as obsessed with Nazism and Hitler as the History Channel.

Ben H. Severance - 6/1/2004

Mr. Jones,

You are right, Bischof did and has made veiled comparisons between Einsatzgruppen and U.S. soliders. The first time I read an HNN article by Mr. Bischof (a month or so ago), I became quite irate. But in light of this article, I now believe that he is an apologist for the Nazi Holocaust, and one of his tactics is to demonize American soldiers. I think there is some validity to his point about the American military being Prussian-like, but that is not Bischof's thought, nor is it an idea that is especially novel. In the 1880s, U.S. General Emory Upton, among others, initiated a transformation within in the U.S. military toward the von Moltke model for fighting forces. Unfortunately, Bischof equates this perfectly logical pursuit of professionalism in the American Armed forces with the brutality characteristic of the Wehrmacht. What he overlooks is that it was Nazism, not Prussianism, that turned the Wehrmacht into a murdering machine.

Ben H. Severance - 6/1/2004

Stephen Vinson - 5/31/2004

A couple things,

You've qualified a lot with "some." I think it's misleading to cite the hopes and goals of some of the Prussians in defense of 19th/turn of the century Germany (a pretty autocratic state whatever its merits in civilization) and then make sweeping statements about United States. (Whether our wars were completely hypocritical and without any intention of freedom, evidence could be cited in the U.S.A.'s favor that is much less anecdotal than what is cited supporting Prussia]

Correct me if I don't know it here, but I didn't think the colonies the Germans did have were places I'd consider liberated or good examples for self-determination, much less the Prussian conquests in Central Europe.

Hell...Osama bin Laden and Saudi extremists talk about liberation. They and the Kaiser, obviously, had a different definition of it than you and me. I don't call a country that merely gets a dictator of their own race/religion liberated. They would.

>Frankly, I dispute the assumption that Iraqis are more free today as a matter of fact than they were a year and three months ago.<

>and the treatment they have received heretofore has been mild only when compared to extreme horrors under the old regime.<

Leaving aside everything else for the sake of argument, doesn't one statement contradict the other?

Bernard A Weisberger - 5/31/2004

I was responding to Mr. Gorman's objection to putting Americans into a box labelled "militarists," and then putting a lot of other national populations into boxes that ended with "ïsts." (Except for "kleptocrats,"whoever they are.) That seems to me to be inconsistent, regardless of whether or not it's common behavior in international conflicts. You say that we have to consider the moral aim of the application of power before we speak of "militarism." Well, I think that the odds are pretty much in favor of the foremost armed power in the world somehow always managing to find "moral justification" for the exercise of its might, and claiming that force is justified when used for benevolent ends. Personally, I'd continue to call that attitude "militaristic" and it seems to be widely shared among my fellow Americans right now. But I could always be wrong. I yield the floor in toto.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/31/2004

I should know better than to get into this discussion, but a point has to be made. Mr. Frank asks "which war of liberation of another oppressed people was ever fought by the Prussian Army? Vichy? Sudetenland? Poland?"

Sudentenland, of course, though it wasn't really the "Prussian" army at that point. Not only was it declared as a war of liberation (and a very popular one among the Czech controlled Germans it liberated), it was accepted by the other European powers at Munich as justifiable, or at least insufficiently unjustifiable to start a war over.

I'm not trying to make a moral equivalency, but pointing out that one must be careful with rhetoric and history.

Daniel B. Larison - 5/31/2004

The term Prussian was aimed at explaining the militarisation of society, which is widespread in this country's institutions and life. Research institutions and business are permeated with military links, and the domestic economy in many places is heavily dependent on military bases and research spending--that is what a militarised society looks like. Mr. Bischof's article was not an attempt to apply a one-to-one equivalence between all of the values of Prussia and all of the values of America. But now that you raise the issue, some Prussian elites did conceive of their militarism as an effort to spread progressive ideas throughout Europe, and they were carrying on a tradition of viewing their domination of the east in terms of liberalising these societies.

In fact, Prussia regarded itself as an engine of progress and social reform in what their elites viewed as a technically, economically and socially backward nation and region. National Liberals from Prussia, especially old Prussian Silesia, were some of those who believed, as some today believe, that German military strength and an expanded German sphere of influence would allow for the expansion of liberalism, and a high proportion of German liberals became extreme nationalists precisely because they associated German civilisation with the advance of freedom. (That this resulted largely in oppression, violence and destruction is not surprising--most wars waged under such auspices are aimed at the demonstration of power ahead of everything else.) The point is that Prussian militarists and German liberals both possessed the conviction that they were bringing progressive civilisation to benighted countries, and part of this civilisation was supposed to be German liberalism.

Baron von Stein's Prussians were vital at Waterloo in defeating Napoleon, one of the greatest megalomaniacs there had been to date. If you were to have asked some Flemish patriots during WWI, they would have argued that Germany was liberating them. If you were a French republican in 1871, you might recognise that the Germans had effectively toppled the great megalomaniac dictator of the second half of the 19th century, but somehow Germany gets no credit for the fall of the Second Empire. It is probably because Americans are taught to be Germanophobes that applying the term Prussian to them is taken to be a pejorative insult rather than a an accurate description of certain aspects of our culture.

Obviously, it is difficult to know what shape a Prusso-German dominated Europe would have looked like had the other side won WWI. The constituent nations of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire would probably have remained subject to their rulers, but on the other hand the British and French empires might have been dismantled, providing some measure of self-determination to millions and millions of people. The Germans did encourage a satellite Ukrainian nationalism to separate it from Russia and also helped Whites in the Baltics shore up their new republics, so one can see support for formerly subject peoples (it was, of course, for strategic reasons, just as Allied blather about self-determination was propaganda that served a geopolitical purpose). Since the Prussians in united Germany never won a war, and so had no opportunity to either liberate or oppress the defeated nations, it isn't a very fair test. The rhetoric of liberation was there: the Kaiser cast himself, however implausibly, as the friend of subject Muslim peoples all over the world (now where have we heard that one before?), and some German agents were even engaged in attempting to ignite rebellions in central Asia and India (though, obviously, to no effect whatever). Whether liberation would have remained rhetoric or not is hard to say.

The vital thing to remember is that no state ever fulfills the goal of "liberation" if the results of that liberation appear to be antithetical to the larger interests of the state. We are beginning to see a tilt back towards Sunni politicians in Iraq, because the Chalabi episode has made Washington deathly afraid of Iranian influence in Iraq. I predict that many more such compromises of the liberation idea will take place before our soldiers depart that miserable country.

For what it is worth, the Germany army also helped keep the Red Army at bay for a couple years and supported Finnish independence in the east until the peace treaty forced them to leave, so one could credit their military tradition with resistance to Bolshevik tyranny there as well.

But I grow a little weary of the American supremacism that makes some virtue out of the fact that we happen to get into wars with particularly nasty governments, which we then destroy and call it liberation. The Japanese were saving East Asia from colonialism, so they claimed, though it was mostly nonsense (I say mostly because they empowered Vietnamese nationalists who then turned against them). The Third Reich was partly saving eastern Europe and Russia from communism--so they would have claimed in their rhetoric. These sorts of deceptions are as old as Babylon, literally, and they are almost always deceptions. The only real liberations modern American armies achieved were in wars we didn't want to fight (WWII, Korea).

Of course, it is liberation in some cases, but liberation is not the reason why America fights the war. It is, at best, usually a happy coincidence, or in the case of the Philippines precisely what we don't want. In the current case, it was not a sufficient cause even for the administration to start the war, but now it has become sufficient justification now that everything else has blown up in their faces. Iraq was invaded for strategic reasons, and "liberation" helped dress it up.

Frankly, I dispute the assumption that Iraqis are more free today as a matter of fact than they were a year and three months ago. They can speak and demonstrate and print more or less what they like (as long as it's not anti-coalition!), but quite a lot of them are either under the power of local religious authorities and militias or in fear of being killed, kidnapped or robbed. The chance of being arbitrarily detained or detained for political crimes is not much less than it was before, and the treatment they have received heretofore has been mild only when compared to extreme horrors under the old regime. It might eventually get better, but right now our record of setting up a new, free government in the "liberated" land is not as good as that of the Germans in the east in 1918-19.

William Glenn Gray - 5/31/2004

What war of liberation? Why, the wars against Napoleon, of course. The fact that Prussia sided with the French emperor on repeated occasions was more than counterbalanced in Prussian historical memory by participation in the great "battle of the nations" at Leipzig in 1813 and Marshal Bluecher's victory (together with Wellington) at Waterloo.

I can't say whether my arguments, or Bischof's, are only suitable for a "leftist ideologue" (I would identify myself as a Rockefeller Republican). I do think that anyone looking at the historical record of Imperial Germany under Wilhelm II will recognize rough similarities with the dilemmas of contemporary America. Kaiser Wilhelm and his chancellors wielded power in such a clumsy manner that they alienated potential allies and eventually generated a hostile coalition against them. That is the great danger facing the United States in the long run. Can it exercise its unique hegemonic power in a restrained manner that doesn't alienate the other industrialized nations?

I think it's extremely dangerous to accept the inevitability of "total war" against so-called "islamofascism." The United States is not the _only_ aggrieved party here, after all. So long as Americans keep a cool head and promote international efforts to combat the undeniably real menace of terrorism, they have some chance of exposing, isolating, and neutralizing this inhumane ideology. If military action gets out of hand, though, the U.S. will needlessly multiply its enemies.

Getting back to the question of historical memory and World War II: it's unfortunate that Americans tend to think of that struggle as a unilateral fight against -isms. Fighting World War II meant joining the world and creating multilateral institutions. Fighting terrorism shouldn't mean excusing ourselves from them.

Steven L. Frank - 5/31/2004

It is always convenient to dehumanize one's enemies by degenerating them into the collective thing that we hate rather than to recognise the each person's humanity. Our enemies do it to us and we do it to them. Its a survival mechanism. All you are describing is a basic human behavior patern and does not speak to weither the aims of American might are morally justified. Mr. Gorman thinks that you can tell very much about a culture by looking at the qualities of its enemies. I agree.

Steven L. Frank - 5/31/2004

You may be right in suggesting that the American Establishment is guilty of the moral failing of hubris and that we ought to look at what overreach and a blind sense of superiority brought to the Prussian state. However you are dooming your arguement's chance of modifying American behavior by the linkage of American behavior with that of the NAZI's and their stooges, the Prussian military culture. Only a leftist ideologue sees moral equivalence in American militarism from World War Two through Iraq with that of fascists. I know historians prefer to argue by analogy from previous historic epics; but those in a position to heed your warning won't buy the message dressed up in those clothes.

I would further argue that your arguement fails on two other fronts. First, which war of liberation of another oppressed people was ever fought by the Prussian Army? Vichy? Sudetenland? Poland?

Second, I think that while one can argue about the tactics envolved in our current war on terror, nobody with have an ounce of historical perspective believes that America is not the agrieved party. This is going to eventually become a total war brought on by Islamofascism and America will crush it just like we did the Japanese and the Germans. Frankly, 60 years is not enough time to have passed for America to be receiving ethics lessons from the Germans.

Bernard A Weisberger - 5/31/2004

I usually (and prudently) stay out of these exchanges, but I note, Mr. Gorman, that you say an attempt to "put Americans in boxes" is flawed, and I agree. Then you describe our opponents in conflicts of last half century as "Communists, kleptocrats,Slavic Nationalists, Baathists, Islamists and Khadaffyists," making no distinctions between or among peoples and governments. Do you sense a little bit of inconsistency there?

G Borman - 5/31/2004

While the predilection of the current generation for body "art," is uglier than dueling scars at Heidelberg, the attempt to put America in convenient boxes is deeply flawed. With power and success come pride and, often, hubris; but these are not the aflictions of modern America. In terms of percentage of GNP and proportion of government spending, the US trend is downward. While the US is undeniably the most powerful nation on the earth, let us look at the one unassailable fact of HOW and against WHOM it has directed its power: against dictators (with perhaps the notable exception of Chile's Allende in 1972).

Communists, kleptocrats, Slavic Nationalists, Baathists, Islamists and Khaddafyists.

This is not some "shocking record," it is the honorable use of force usually at the behest of and in agreement with our democratic allies. I cannot promise that American power will always be used perfectly but, to date, the US has used its power wisely and the world is a better place for it.

William Glenn Gray - 5/31/2004

Readers need to bear in mind that Bischof's piece is about historical memory, not the ins and outs of particular American decisions during World War II. He makes an excellent point: the concept of World War II as "the Good War" has tended to override an earlier American tradition of skepticism toward military establishments.

This is reflected also in changing American understandings of their foe in Europe. Today the Third Reich is remembered in the U.S. mainly for the beastly racial aspects of Nazism. But early American occupation policy also regarded Prussian militarism as a great evil in its own right. Frankly, I doubt that many Americans today still remember Prussia well enough to have any idea what that form of militarism entailed. And yet the corruption of the Prussian military - the descent of discipline, valor, patriotism, and the proud legacy of wars of liberation into amoral and ruthless aggression - ought to give Americans pause for thought.

It would help, I think, if we could at least agree that the formula "good war" is an oxymoron. Americans committed terrible atrocities during World War II. Here I'm hoping that the recent documentary _Fog of War_ can help stimulate a healthy discussion; Robert S. McNamara basically admits that it was a war crime to fire-bomb so many Japanese cities.

Obviously none of us are sorry that Germany and Japan were defeated by the U.S., Britain, and the U.S.S.R. This is not an exercise in "moral equivalence." But if we Americans were to recall with less dewy-eyed nostalgia the inhumanity of our own country's conduct in war, we might be more cautious in the application of military force.

Steven L. Frank - 5/30/2004

The use of such pejorative terms such as "Prussian" to descibe American attitudes towards and the actions of its military reveals the polemical bias of the writer more than bestowing a fresh insight to the reader.

Tell me, in what ways the Prussian culture or military was ever used to free another people from the privations of megalomaniacs and fascists?

Daniel B. Larison - 5/30/2004

Mr. Bischof might have been more careful in his choice of comparisons. The brutalities of the Pacific islands battles were notably different from German atrocities involving eastern European civilians, because the former were directed principally at a determined and opposing army. But was Bischof's piece really a screed or "far left"? I sometimes get accused of writing screeds, and this is usually just a measure of how radically my critic disagrees with me (in fairness, I have probably made the mistake of labelling my opponents' writings in a similar way). It is not always a very useful word to describe the content of an article.

I believe the point was that Americans have become inured to militarism to such an extent that they are willing to defend and, if necessary, whitewash the records of military actions, especially in self-defined moral crusades such as WWII has become in the public mind. There are two sides to this: the war was objectively good, and so anything done in its name was acceptable; the war was objectively good and Americans did not commit major atrocities in that war. The first is obviously wrong, and most people do not hold this view; the second is wrong, but probably more people hold this view, if only out of the illusion that genuine atrocities (Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo, Hiroshima, etc.) were necessary in a war effort against a fanatical opponent. Sometimes, if the atrocity is admitted, the atrocities of the other side are cited as some sort of counter-argument, though what this is supposed to prove is not clear.

I submit that the observation of Prussification of America in its most negative sense is dead on, whether or not one wants to include specific complaints against the Enola Gay exhibit as part of that process. In wartime, Americans lavish a nobility and dignity on the government that they would normally never apply, and it remains an article of faith in the civil religion, at least since the aftermath of Vietnam, that the military is really beyond reproach. If something goes awry, it is anyone else's fault but the military. I am even usually inclined to agree with this attitude (in the sense that the military is ultimately only fulfilling the bad policies of the government), but it is a measure of how thoroughly staatstreu Americans have become that even a harsh critic of the government as I am is not willing to transgress against this very Prussian admiration for the military. My main criticism about the Prussification argument is that it misses the fact that America had been Prussified, or was imitating the same processes taking place in modern Prussia, as far back as 1865. The post-WWII period only encouraged and accelerated trends that were latent in the American government since that time.

The justifications for the use of nuclear weapons against Japan usually revolve around how bloody and destructive an invasion of the home islands would have been, which the attacks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki avoided, but this invasion was not necessary to end the war. There were numerous attempts on the part of the Japanese to negotiate peace long before the summer of 1945, but Roosevelt's fanatical policy of unconditional surrender perpetuated the war much longer than it needed to go on and "necessitated" the fire bombings and nuclear attacks on Japan.

Grant W Jones - 5/30/2004

You might find Gavan Daws _Prisoners of the Japanese_ an interesting read, if you haven't already.

One difference in wartime conduct: In 1941 MacArthur declared Manila an "open city" because it was indefensible and to spare the Filipino people. In 1945 the city was still indefensible, so the Japanese Army indulged in an orgy of rape and murder and then burnt the city to the ground. This was before the fire bombing of Tokyo. The fact that it was the Axis nations (including Japan) that initiated total war has been lost in this exercise in moral equivalence.

In the reduction of Buna, Papua, the American 126th Infantry Regiment suffered 90% casualties. Yes, 90%. Most were due to malaria and other tropical diseases. The conditions under which these men fought were incredible. By December, 1942 the Japanese position in Papua was hopeless. Cut off from all supply, reinforcement or rescue, the Japanese forces there fought to the last man. Do you seriously think that the American and Australian soldiers would have prefered killing the enemy to the last man in bitter bunker to bunker fighting rather than having the enemy simply lay down its arms and surrendering? The Japanese decided on just how brutal the war was going to be, just as they did in China. That's a fact, deal with it.

Do you consider Bischof' screed balanced? In his second to the last paragraph he compares (although I know it will be denied, but first read the title of his essay) American soldiers and Marines with Nazi Einsatzkommando. If American soldiers are as bad as Nazi killers, then Nazi killers are no worse than American combat soldiers in the South Pacific. This view, of holding SS killers as soldiers like any others, is an old apologist line. I am not surprised to see some Euro-Trash reviving it.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/30/2004

You might find John Dower's War Without Mercy an interesting read, if you haven't already. The war was brutal on both sides, and the idea of portraying that in a balanced fashion is not anti-American.

Christopher Osborne - 5/30/2004

One problem with Bischof's article, which apparently takes sides with the original exhibitors of the Smithsonian's commemoration of Hiroshima, is that it failed to reflect any sense of balance regarding the Pacific War and instead reflected the trendy anti-Americanism of the contemporary Far Left.
Although U.S. Marines did adorn their tanks with the heads of dead and charred Japanese soldiers, how many Japanese would have died in the island-hopping campaign if they DID NOT believe in suicidal resistance to the last man? U.S. failure to take prisoners during the island-hopping campaign stemmed from their initial experience with the Ichiki Detachment during the battle for Guadalcanal in August 1942. After the Marines defending the U.S. perimeter around Henderson Field repulsed the Ichiki Detachment's assault, U.S. Marines stepped forward to take in wounded Japanese soldiers. These men instead blew themselves up with their own grenades (along with several potential U.S. captors) rather than let themselves be made prisoner and receive medical treatment.
The Enola Gay original exhibit idea likewise reflected trendy anti-Americanism in its coverage of Hiroshima. President Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb was based in part on the Okinawa campaign in which 110,000 Japanese soldiers fought to the death rather than surrender, 49,000 U.S. casualties were suffered, and 475 suicide planes slammed into American ships offshore. On the Japanese home islands the Japanese had 14 standing armies stationed. They were also preparing the people for suicidal civil defense, had built stakes in tidewaters off their beaches to tear the bottoms out of potential U.S. landing craft, and had even introduced acorns to the Japanese people as a dietary "staple" to counter the effects of the Allied blockade. The Japanese also wouldn't surrender even as U.S. planes were bombing their cities at treetop level, as U.S. subs were sinking passenger ferries, and as the U.S. and British navies were able to blast the Tokyo and Yokohama waterfronts without fear of any effective resistance.
Hirohito himself had to break an effective tie in his governing council after Hiroshima and Nagasaki to compel the Japanese government to surrender. Even so, according to historian John Toland, some young right-wing army officers tried to invade the Imperial Palace to intercept and destroy the copy of the emperor's surrender speech. After this speech was delivered anyway, many crowds of Japanese civilians committed hara-kiri in the streets during the two weeks between their country's surrender and the arrival of the first U.S. occupation troops.
Of course we also fail to hear within the context of the Enola Gay exhibit any mention of events such as the Rape of Nanking, Unit 731's medical experiments on human "log" guinea pigs in Manchuria, the Bataan Death March, and Japanese crimes against both U.S. and British POWs (and their mortality rate of 28%--substantially higher than the mortality rate of 5% for U.S. and British soldiers in German captivity). But I guess none of the above fits into the Far Left's relentless effort to portray America as the (one and only) Great Satan.