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What Have We Learned, If Anything?

The United States avoided almost all of that. Americans, perhaps alone in the world, experienced the twentieth century in a far more positive light. The US was not invaded. It did not lose vast numbers of citizens, or huge swathes of territory, as a result of occupation or dismemberment. Although humiliated in distant neocolonial wars (in Vietnam and now in Iraq), the US has never suffered the full consequences of defeat.4 Despite their ambivalence toward its recent undertakings, most Americans still feel that the wars their country has fought were mostly “good wars.” The US was greatly enriched by its role in the two world wars and by their outcome, in which respect it has nothing in common with Britain, the only other major country to emerge unambiguously victorious from those struggles but at the cost of near bankruptcy and the loss of empire. And compared with other major twentieth-century combatants, the US lost relatively few soldiers in battle and suffered hardly any civilian casualties.

This contrast merits statistical emphasis. In World War I the US suffered slightly fewer than 120,000 combat deaths. For the UK, France, and Germany the figures are respectively 885,000, 1.4 million, and over 2 million. In World War II, when the US lost about 420,000 armed forces in combat, Japan lost 2.1 million, China 3.8 million, Germany 5.5 million, and the Soviet Union an estimated 10.7 million. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., records the deaths of 58,195 Americans over the course of a war lasting fifteen years: but the French army lost double that number in six weeks of fighting in May–June 1940. In the US Army’s costliest engagement of the century—the Ardennes offensive of December 1944–January 1945 (the “Battle of the Bulge”)—19,300 American soldiers were killed. In the first twenty-four hours of the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916), the British army lost more than 20,000 dead. At the Battle of Stalingrad, the Red Army lost 750,000 men and the Wehrmacht almost as many.

With the exception of the generation of men who fought in World War II, the United States thus has no modern memory of combat or loss remotely comparable to that of the armed forces of other countries. But it is civilian casualties that leave the most enduring mark on national memory and here the contrast is piquant indeed. In World War II alone the British suffered 67,000 civilian dead. In continental Europe, France lost 270,000 civilians. Yugoslavia recorded over half a million civilian deaths, Germany 1.8 million, Poland 5.5 million, and the Soviet Union an estimated 11.4 million. These aggregate figures include some 5.8 million Jewish dead. Further afield, in China, the death count exceeded 16 million. American civilian losses (excluding the merchant navy) in both world wars amounted to less than 2,000 dead.

As a consequence, the United States today is the only advanced democracy where public figures glorify and exalt the military, a sentiment familiar in Europe before 1945 but quite unknown today. Politicians in the US surround themselves with the symbols and trappings of armed prowess; even in 2008 American commentators excoriate allies that hesitate to engage in armed conflict. I believe it is this contrasting recollection of war and its impact, rather than any structural difference between the US and otherwise comparable countries, which accounts for their dissimilar responses to international challenges today. Indeed, the complacent neoconservative claim that war and conflict are things Americans understand—in contrast to naive Europeans with their pacifistic fantasies—seems to me exactly wrong: it is Europeans (along with Asians and Africans) who understand war all too well. Most Americans have been fortunate enough to live in blissful ignorance of its true significance.

That same contrast may account for the distinctive quality of much American writing on the cold war and its outcome. In European accounts of the fall of communism, from both sides of the former Iron Curtain, the dominant sentiment is one of relief at the closing of a long, unhappy chapter. Here in the US, however, the story is typically recorded in a triumphalist key.5 And why not? For many American commentators and policymakers the message of the twentieth century is that war works. Hence the widespread enthusiasm for our war on Iraq in 2003 (despite strong opposition to it in most other countries). For Washington, war remains an option—on that occasion the first option. For the rest of the developed world it has become a last resort.6

Ignorance of twentieth-century history does not just contribute to a regrettable enthusiasm for armed conflict. It also leads to a misidentification of the enemy. We have good reason to be taken up just now with terrorism and its challenge. But before setting out on a hundred-year war to eradicate terrorists from the face of the earth, let us consider the following. Terrorists are nothing new. Even if we exclude assassinations or attempted assassinations of presidents and monarchs and confine ourselves to men and women who kill random unarmed civilians in pursuit of a political objective, terrorists have been with us for well over a century.

There have been anarchist terrorists, Russian terrorists, Indian terrorists, Arab terrorists, Basque terrorists, Malay terrorists, Tamil terrorists, and dozens of others besides. There have been and still are Christian terrorists, Jewish terrorists, and Muslim terrorists. There were Yugoslav (“partisan”) terrorists settling scores in World War II; Zionist terrorists blowing up Arab marketplaces in Palestine before 1948; American-financed Irish terrorists in Margaret Thatcher’s London; US-armed mujahideen terrorists in 1980s Afghanistan; and so on.

No one who has lived in Spain, Italy, Germany, Turkey, Japan, the UK, or France, not to speak of more habitually violent lands, could have failed to notice the omnipresence of terrorists—using guns, bombs, chemicals, cars, trains, planes, and much else—over the course of the twentieth century and beyond. The only thing that has changed in recent years is the unleashing in September 2001 of homicidal terrorism within the United States. Even that was not wholly unprecedented: the means were new and the carnage unexampled, but terrorism on US soil was far from unknown over the course of the twentieth century.

But what of the argument that terrorism today is different, a “clash of cultures” infused with a noxious brew of religion and authoritarian politics: “Islamofascism”? This, too, is an interpretation resting in large part on a misreading of twentieth-century history. There is a triple confusion here. The first consists of lumping together the widely varying national fascisms of interwar Europe with the very different resentments, demands, and strategies of the (equally heterogeneous) Muslim movements and insurgencies of our own time—and attaching the moral credibility of the antifascist struggles of the past to our own more dubiously motivated military adventures.

A second confusion comes from conflating a handful of religiously motivated stateless assassins with the threat posed in the twentieth century by wealthy, modern states in the hands of totalitarian political parties committed to foreign aggression and mass extermination. Nazism was a threat to our very existence and the Soviet Union occupied half of Europe. But al-Qaeda? The comparison insults the intelligence—not to speak of the memory of those who fought the dictators. Even those who assert these similarities don’t appear to believe them. After all, if Osama bin Laden were truly comparable to Hitler or Stalin, would we really have responded to September 11 by invading…Baghdad?

But the most serious mistake consists of taking the form for the content: defining all the various terrorists and terrorisms of our time, with their contrasting and sometimes conflicting objectives, by their actions alone. It would be rather as though one were to lump together the Italian Red Brigades, the German Baader-Meinhof gang, the Provisional IRA, the Basque ETA, Switzerland’s Jura Separatists, and the National Front for the Liberation of Corsica; dismiss their differences as insignificant; label the resulting amalgam of ideological kneecappers, bomb throwers, and political murderers “European Extremism” (or “Christo-fascism,” perhaps?)…and then declare uncompromising, open-ended armed warfare against it.

This abstracting of foes and threats from their context—this ease with which we have talked ourselves into believing that we are at war with “Islamofascists,” “extremists” from a strange culture, who dwell in some distant “Islamistan,” who hate us for who we are and seek to destroy “our way of life”—is a sure sign that we have forgotten the lesson of the twentieth century: the ease with which war and fear and dogma can bring us to demonize others, deny them a common humanity or the protection of our laws, and do unspeakable things to them.

How else are we to explain our present indulgence for the practice of torture? For indulge it we assuredly do. The twentieth century began with the Hague Conventions on the laws of war. As of 2008 the twenty-first century has to its credit the Guantánamo Bay detention camp. Here and in other (secret) prisons the United States routinely tortures terrorists or suspected terrorists. There is ample twentieth-century precedent for this, of course, and not only in dictatorships. The British tortured terrorists in their East African colonies as late as the 1950s. The French tortured captured Algerian terrorists in the “dirty war” to keep Algeria French.7

At the height of the Algerian war Raymond Aron published two powerful essays urging France to quit Algeria and concede its independence: this, he insisted, was a pointless war that France could not win. Some years later Aron was asked why, when opposing French rule in Algeria, he did not also add his voice to those who were speaking out against the use of torture in Algeria. “But what would I have achieved by proclaiming my opposition to torture?” he replied. “I have never met anyone who is in favor of torture.”8

Well, times have changed. In the US today there are many respectable, thinking people who favor torture—under the appropriate circumstances and when applied to those who merit it. Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School writes that “the simple cost-benefit analysis for employing such non-lethal torture [to extract time-sensitive information from a prisoner] seems overwhelming.” Professor Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago’s School of Divinity acknowledges that torture remains a horror and is “in general [sic]…forbidden.” But when interrogating “prisoners in the context of a deadly and dangerous war against enemies who know no limits…there are moments when this rule may be overridden.”9

These chilling assertions are echoed by New York’s Senator Charles Schumer (a Democrat), who at a Senate hearing in 2004 claimed that “there are probably very few people in this room or in America who would say that torture should never ever be used.” Certainly not Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who informed the BBC’s Radio Four in February 2008 that it would be absurd to say that you couldn’t torture. In Scalia’s words,

Once you acknowledge that, we’re into a different game. How close does the threat have to be? How severe can the infliction of pain be? I don’t think these are easy questions at all…. But I certainly know you can’t come in smugly and with great self-satisfaction and say, “Oh, it’s torture, and therefore it’s no good.”10

But it was precisely that claim, that “it’s torture, and therefore it’s no good,” which until very recently distinguished democracies from dictatorships. We pride ourselves on having defeated the “evil empire” of the Soviets. Indeed so. But perhaps we should read again the memoirs of those who suffered at the hands of that empire—the memoirs of Eugen Loebl, Artur London, Jo Langer, Lena Constante, and countless others—and then compare the degrading abuses they suffered with the treatments approved and authorized by President Bush and the US Congress. Are they so very different?11

Torture certainly “works.” As the history of twentieth-century police states suggests, under extreme torture most people will say anything (including, sometimes, the truth). But to what end? Thanks to information extracted from terrorists under torture, the French army won the 1957 Battle of Algiers. Just over four years later the war was over, Algeria was independent, and the “terrorists” had won. But France still carries the stain and the memory of the crimes committed in its name. Torture really is no good, especially for republics. And as Aron noted many decades ago, “torture—and lies—[are] the accompaniment of war…. What needed to be done was end the war.”12

We are slipping down a slope. The sophistic distinctions we draw today in our war on terror—between the rule of law and “exceptional” circumstances, between citizens (who have rights and legal protections) and noncitizens to whom anything can be done, between normal people and “terrorists,” between “us” and “them”—are not new. The twentieth century saw them all invoked. They are the selfsame distinctions that licensed the worst horrors of the recent past: internment camps, deportation, torture, and murder—those very crimes that prompt us to murmur “never again.” So what exactly is it that we think we have learned from the past? Of what possible use is our self-righteous cult of memory and memorials if the United States can build its very own internment camp and torture people there?

Far from escaping the twentieth century, we need, I think, to go back and look a bit more carefully. We need to learn again—or perhaps for the first time—how war brutalizes and degrades winners and losers alike and what happens to us when, having heedlessly waged war for no good reason, we are encouraged to inflate and demonize our enemies in order to justify that war’s indefinite continuance. And perhaps, in this protracted electoral season, we could put a question to our aspirant leaders: Daddy (or, as it might be, Mommy), what did you do to prevent the war?

  1. 4

    The defeated South did indeed experience just such consequences following the Civil War, however. And its subsequent humiliation, resentment, and backwardness are the American exception that illustrates the rule.

  2. 5

    See my discussion of The Cold War: A New History (Penguin, 2005) by John Lewis Gaddis, in The New York Review, March 23, 2006.

  3. 6

    It should be noted, however, that a younger generation of political leaders in the UK—starting with Tony Blair—has proven almost as indifferent to the lessons of the twentieth century as their American contemporaries.

  4. 7

    See Caroline Elkins, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (Henry Holt, 2005); Marnia Lazreg, Torture and the Twilight of Empire: From Algiers to Baghdad (Princeton University Press, 2008); and Darius Rejali, Torture and Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2007).

  5. 8

    Raymond Aron, La Tragédie Algérienne (Paris: Plon, 1957), L’Algérie et la République (Paris: Plon, 1958), and Le Spectateur engagé (Paris: Julliard, 1981), p. 210. For a firsthand account of torture, see Henri Alleg, The Question (Bison, 2006; originally published in 1958 as La Question). La Torture dans la République, by the late Pierre Vidal-Naquet, is a penetrating account of how torture rots the political system that authorizes it. First published in English in 1963, this book has long been out of print. It should be retranslated and made required reading for every congressman and presidential candidate in the US.

  6. 9

    Alan M. Dershowitz, Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge (Yale University Press, 2002), p. 144; Jean Bethke Elshtain, “Reflections on the Problem of ‘Dirty Hands,’” in Torture: A Collection, edited by Sanford Levinson (Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 80–83.

  7. 10

    Senator Schumer is quoted in The Wall Street Journal, November 2, 2007. For Justice Scalia’s remarks, see www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2008-02-13-scalia_N.htm.

  8. 11

    Lena Constante, The Silent Escape: Three Thousand Days in Romanian Prisons (University of California Press, 1995); Jo Langer, Une Saison à Bratislava (Paris: Seuil, 1981); Eugen Loebl, My Mind on Trial (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976); Artur Gerard London, L’Aveu, dans l’engrenage du Procès de Prague (Paris: Gallimard, 1971).

  9. 12

    Le Spectateur engagé, pp. 210–211.

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