The Good War?
Pat Buchanan (yes, I know) had a provocative column on Friday questioning whether World War II can rightly be called “The Good War.” Here is a taste:
Britain declared war on Sept. 3, 1939, to preserve Poland. For six years, Poland was occupied by Nazi and Soviet armies and SS and NKVD killers. At war’s end, the Polish dead were estimated at 6 million. A third of Poland had been torn away by Stalin, and Nazis had used the country for the infamous camps of Treblinka and Auschwitz.
Fifteen thousand Polish officers had been massacred at places like Katyn. The Home Army that rose in Warsaw at the urging of the Red Army in 1944 had been annihilated, as the Red Army watched from the other side of the Vistula. When the British celebrated V-E day in May 1945, Poland began 44 years of tyranny under the satraps of Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev.
Was World War II “a good war” for the Poles?
Can a war in which 50 million perished and the Christian continent was destroyed, half of it enslaved, a war that has advanced the death of Western civilization, be truly celebrated as a “good war”?
Buchanan is right, of course. It is unfortunate that the main Christian doctrine dealing with the morality of conduct in war goes by the name “Just War Theory,” leading people naturally to speak of whether a given war is just or unjust. War is never just; it always involves injustice on at least one side, and often on all sides. Participation in a given war by a particular country may be just, but the war itself never is.
One can, of course, speak loosely of a “just war,” meaning simply that the participation* by a particular nation in a given war was just. From the perspective of America, then, one might consider World War II a just war (as Pope Benedict says in Values In A Time Of Upheaval, “it is clear that the intervention of the Allies [in WWII] was a bellum iustrum, a ‘just war,’ that ultimately served the good of those against whose country the war was waged.”) From the perspective of Germany, however, WWII was not a just war. It was, in fact, a paradigm case of an unjust war.
It was the failure to make this sort of distinction, I think, that led to some of the controversy a while back over Pope Benedict’s statement that “war is the worst solution for all sides. It brings no good to anyone, not even to the apparent victors. We understand this very well in Europe, after the two world wars.” When the Pope made this comment, many in the U.S. were baffled by it, and read superficially it can of course seem inconsistent with the Pope’s above statement about the goodness and justice of the Allied intervention. The Pope’s point, however, was not that it is never legitimate to fight, but that all wars leave humanity (including the victors) worse off than they were before, and are for that reason, in the words of his predecessor, “always a defeat for humanity.”
To the extent that this was Buchanan’s point, he is on solid ground. Some of his past comments, however (along with the title of his upcoming book), make me think that Buchanan would go further than this. If I have read him right, it is his position not simply that the world would have been a far better place had Hitler not invaded Poland, but that we would have all been better off if the Allies had done nothing about it. As one character on the BBC show Yes, Prime Minister put the view: “There was nothing wrong with appeasement. All that World War Two achieved after six years was to leave Eastern Europe under a Communist dictatorship instead of a Fascist dictatorship. That’s what comes of not listening to the Foreign Office.” To which Buchanan appears to want to add that if it weren’t for the Allied intervention there would have been no Holocaust.
Playing “what if” is always a tricky matter, but this strikes me as being absurd and naive. Hitler’s invasion of Poland was simply the latest in a long series of aggressive moves by Hitler, and from his unpublished sequel to Mein Kampf, it’s clear that he planned eventual wars with Russia, France, and the United States as well. and while the war accelerated Hitler’s plans for getting rid of the Jews, I don’t think that long lasting Nazi rule (which is what not stopping Hitler would have meant) would have ended up being to their benefit (certainly there are very few Jews who think so, or who would feel gratified by Buchanan’s obvious concern for their safety). As such, while I expect that Buchanan’s book will be quite fascinating in parts, I still must agree with John Zmirak’s opinion that “I cannot help being glad that Franklin Roosevelt maneuvered America into the Second World War.”
*As opposed to all the actions undertaken during the course of that participation.
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