Revisiting the Good War
By Ellen Goodman
Saturday, May 22, 2004; Page A27
BOSTON -- In a few days we'll go back to the good war. Just for a visit. We'll rerun the tape of World War II with respect, gratitude and, maybe, nostalgia.
The memorial to what we have dubbed "the greatest generation" will be dedicated on the Mall in Washington next Saturday. The 60th anniversary of D-Day will be commemorated eight days later.
So we'll listen to words carved into stone monuments. Dwight David Eisenhower's exhortations to the D-Day troops embarking on "the Great Crusade." Franklin Delano Roosevelt extolling the "righteous might" of the American people.
We'll bring to these ceremonies an appreciation of a time when victory was uncertain, sacrifice was enormous and the alternative was terrifying. We'll celebrate a time when GIs were indeed greeted with sweets and flowers. When American armies were truly liberators -- of concentration camps. When Hitler was not a name we used all too loosely to label our enemies. And war wasn't a choice -- it was thrust on us.
But I hope we also bring to these ceremonies an understanding of how the idea of a "good war" has been chiseled into our collective memory. For better and, maybe now, for worse.
What a powerful grip World War II still retains on our imagination. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the one analogy everyone made was to Pearl Harbor. In those first days when the president was at his best, he told the nation, "We have suffered great loss. And in our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment. . . . Our nation -- this generation -- will lift a dark threat of violence from our people and our future."
Only later, after the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban had morphed into a war against Iraq, did I begin to wonder about the echoes he evoked with "our mission," "our moment," and "this generation."
Bush the father flew 58 combat missions in the Pacific. His generation had acquired its gravitas and its moniker in military service. Bush the son was a boomer whose international résumé was as light as a butterfly ballot. He found his calling, his generation's calling, in the War on Terror. It would be our good war.
More than once, the president has told the country, "Either you support evil or you support good. This great nation stands on the side of good."
The language of good and evil barely changed as the reasons for the war in Iraq changed. "Goodness" became our moral cover story as the mission justified by weapons of mass destruction was rejustified for liberation. For sweets and flowers.
Over the past year, our moral "stand" as the good guys became shaky and then collapsed in a photo op of abuse. When Jeremy Sivits -- the soldier who took photographs of acts he should have stopped -- stood before a court-martial, he said in anguish: "This is not me." In story after story, hometown folks refer to soldiers now accused of shameful crimes as either "a gentle giant" or "a prankster" or, as it was said of Lynndie England, "a human being."
Are we remembering, finally, what a "human being" can do in war? What war can do to a human being? Turn someone into "not me." Is the president who proudly proclaimed that he sees black and white, not gray, getting Baghdad dust on his lenses?
Iraq is often -- too often -- compared to Vietnam. But those who recklessly embarked on this war skipped Vietnam with its heart of darkness and chose World War II instead as their upbeat model.
Today we rarely use Ike's language of "crusade." It's far too loaded in a Muslim world. Nor do we use FDR's "righteous" vocabulary. But it has been harder to shake the idea of a good war loose from its moorings in our imagination.
There are atrocities in every war, although no digital cameras recorded them until now. We know or should know that war can hone a killer's hardness against humanity in a way that may take a lifetime to soften. Would it be different, I wonder, if our World War II memorials included Hiroshima and Dresden, the human tragedies that come adhered even to victory?
The men I know who have a paid-up membership card in the greatest generation talk less of wartime heroism than of camaraderie and scared-to-the-bones hope of survival. They share a certainty that the war itself was right. By which they mean necessary.
So maybe we should pack understanding as well as gratitude for this year's visit to our fathers' war. There are just wars and there are unjust wars. There are wars that are forced on us and wars we rashly choose. But there is no such thing, then or now, as a good war.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company