Memories of war are powerful and fragmentary. At a national level, we do best at remembering our own war dead while scarcely recognizing the damage to others. This is one cost of nationalism. Nationalism is violent, bigoted, and discriminatory. It elevates a few at the expense of the many. It fails fully to recognize common human experience, even one as shattering as war.
One example. I’ve visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. In seeing all those names of American dead on the wall, I was moved to tears. It’s a remarkable memorial, but what it fails to capture is any sense of the magnitude of death from that war visited upon Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. As I wrote for Alternet, to visualize the extent of death from America’s war in Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese would need a wall that would be roughly 20 to 50 times as long as ours.
Think about that for a moment. A wall perhaps 50 times as long as our Vietnam memorial wall. It’s a staggering mental image. Sadly, today in America the only wall garnering much media interest is Trump’s wall along our border with Mexico, yet another manifestation of nationalist bigotry and bias.
John Dower challenges us to think differently. To explore our common humanity. To remember the war dead of other nations and peoples, and to record the true cost of America’s wars, both to others and to ourselves. His latest article at TomDispatch.com explores how Americans both remember and forget their wars. Here’s an excerpt:
While it is natural for people and nations to focus on their own sacrifice and suffering rather than the death and destruction they themselves inflict, in the case of the United States such cognitive astigmatism is backlighted by the country’s abiding sense of being exceptional, not just in power but also in virtue. In paeans to “American exceptionalism,” it is an article of faith that the highest values of Western and Judeo-Christian civilization guide the nation’s conduct — to which Americans add their country’s purportedly unique embrace of democracy, respect for each and every individual, and stalwart defense of a “rules-based” international order.
Such self-congratulation requires and reinforces selective memory. “Terror,” for instance, has become a word applied to others, never to oneself. And yet during World War II, U.S. and British strategic-bombing planners explicitly regarded their firebombing of enemy cities as terror bombing, and identified destroying the morale of noncombatants in enemy territory as necessary and morally acceptable. Shortly after the Allied devastation of the German city of Dresden in February 1945, Winston Churchill, whose bust circulates in and out of the presidential Oval Office in Washington (it is currently in), referred to the “bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts.”
Too often, Americans believe they’re waging a war on terror, forgetting that war itself is terror. That war itself is evil. That doesn’t mean that war is never justified, as it was, I believe, in the struggle against Nazi tyranny in World War II. Even in justifiable wars, however, we need to recognize that war breeds corruption; that war, in essence, is corruption, a corruption of the human spirit, of a humanity which should be held in common and nourished, but which during war is degraded if not destroyed.
John Dower recognizes this. It’s a theme he explores in his new book, The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War Two. Consider it a primer on war’s many corruptions, and a précis of America’s tendency toward a nationalism of callous indifference when it comes to the damages we inflict on others. It’s not happy reading, but then again wars shouldn’t be a subject for happiness.
Wars and rumors of war seem always to be with us. Some would say they’re an inevitable part of the human condition. Our historical record seems to support that grim conclusion. Yet there is another way, a more pacific path, a path toward peace. But to walk that path, we must first fully recognize the tangled undergrowth of war that imperils our every footstep. Dower’s latest book helps us to do just that.
William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.