As someone who has an instinctive aversion to over-praising members of the military (indeed, as someone who cannot help but shudder inwardly every time ‘our brave boys’ are invoked), I was more than a little surprised that the commemoration of the D-Day landings, which took place last week, brought a tear to my eye.
Surprised, but not unhappy. That tear, although unexpected, was not unwanted; to my mind, if I were to well up at anything that had occurred, it were better that this was the occasion. There is something in us all, I think, that recognises the fundamental goodness of the Allied side of the Second World War. There is something in all of us that knows, deep down, that fascism and militarism and tyranny could not be morally allowed to expand and fester without opposition.
Even in today’s political climate – where the very term ‘appeasement’ has been annexed by every two-penny would-be hawk looking to emulate the Churchillian, and the politics of the time have been wrenched from their proper context to provide an easy moral lesson – I think it would be hard to find someone who would disagree with the contention that Nazism and Italian fascism and Japanese militarism needed to be opposed; and, not just that, fought.
For, after all, those regimes represent the pinnacle of evil. Hitler’s armies brutalised the East and occupied the West. Mussolini’s men gassed the Abyssinians in foolish pursuit of a colonial empire. The warriors of Japan committed brutalities of such ghastly magnitude and individual idiosyncrasy that they defy description.
But their combatants, the Allies, also did terrible things. Dresden was firebombed, as was Tokyo. Millions lost their lives on the receiving end of the explosive payloads of the RAF and United States Air Force. The British and Americans committed cultural vandalism in Italy and their governments got away with imprisoning political dissenters at home. Despite what President Obama asserted in 2009, the torture of enemy prisoners was wilfully employed by the British authorities. Joseph Stalin was one of the most evil men in history, and presided over the wholesale extermination of the Kulak peasant class, as well as man-made famine in Ukraine, and ceaseless political purges within the Communist Party.
The actions described above are not pleasant ones, and yet the cause with which they are inextricably linked – namely, winning the war and liberating Western Europe and the Far East – is still, inescapably, a just one.
One does not need to support these policies in order to support the war: George Orwell was a critic of both domestic political oppression and the passivity of the British intelligentsia when confronted with the crimes of Stalin, for example. However, he still saw the victory over Hitler and others as a moral imperative.
In short, this war could be justified. This application of deadly force could be rationalised. When confronted with the sinister combination of abject moral depravity and geopolitical clout, the people of Britain and the United States and others were convinced that the bombing raids, the battles for supply shipping and, eventually, the naval landings were worth it.
As I watched the remainder of those men who had stormed the five beaches seventy years ago – no longer long and straight-limbed, no longer youthful in outward appearance – something did give within me.
They had fought against one of the greatest forces for evil that the world had ever seen, and they did so willingly, many of them leaving their home countries for the first time ever, in order to do battle with the forces of fascism. The sacrifice of their generation – while great – has been acknowledged. Their battles are understood to have been undertaken for the good of all.
Not so today.
Our nations are now steeped in decades of isolationist advancement. Wars are disdained; dismissed out of hand. New tyrants have risen. They commit atrocities, war crimes and acts of brutal, sadistic violence against captive populations. Assad in Syria gases civilians: an action directly comparable to (and yet, shockingly, perpetrated on an even greater scale than) Mussolini’s crimes. Kim Jong-Un in North Korea cuts off its population from the rest of the world and puts dissenters in forced labour camps, leaving its inhabitants to starve to death. In Afghanistan, the same people who shoot little girls in the head for attempting to receive an education are poised to overthrow the feeble government of Hamid Karzai when the Americans and British, prompted by domestic political pressure, withdraw from the region. These actions go on undisturbed by the international community; these crimes go unpunished.
But fighting despotism using military means is no longer seen as a potential tool for good. Vague notions of diplomacy take precedence over promises of unpopular conflict for politicians seeking re-election from a war-weary electorate. Red Lines are abandoned. Thugs and international criminals are left to get on with it, with Western powers standing at the sidelines, ineffectually hoping that the resultant slaughter and repression won’t be too messy.
Such an attitude represents a profound degradation of the way things work. Diplomacy will not help when a tyrant is eager to keep a population under his thumb, or when he has already ruined his own case by using illegal chemical weapons or committing blatant war crimes. Such people will not go quietly, and nor will they simply give in at a sensible interval.
Dictators have an almost limpet-like attachment to power. Sometimes a bit of force is required to remove them. Such wars, if undertaken in the right manner – with public criticism in the Orwell mould, for instance – could be every inch as ‘good’ as the one which was fought against Hitler. Sometimes, they can even be cleaner: see the almost forgotten British intervention in Sierra Leone by way of illustration.
But these operations are no longer popular, and will likely no longer be carried out in a similar fashion.
Hence the reason for my welling up. It wasn’t just the activities of the old boys, as moving as they were. It is the thought that such ultimately good actions, though they may be flawed, are less possible now than at any time since our contemporary veterans stormed the beaches – and that leaves the world in a much worse position.
James Snell is a Contributing Editor of The Libertarian