When video of the October 14th edition of Thom Hartmann's TV show appears online (here) it will include him asking me to justify not attacking Hitler. Thom has asked me this repeatedly during multiple appearances on his show, each time a little differently, and each time provocatively. He's right to ask it, and he's been right in some of the answers he's helped provide in the asking.
Without Hitler, the U.S. military would collapse.
For 68 years, wars on poor countries have been justified by the pretended discovery of Hitler's reincarnation. Each time it has turned out to be a false alarm. Every post-WWII war looks disastrous or at least dubious in retrospect to most people. And yet, the justification of the next war is always ready to hand, because the real, original Hitler remains alive in our memories, and he just might come back -- who's to say?
Actually, I think anyone vaguely aware of basic facts about the current world ought to be able to say that Hitler is gone for good.
How do I justify not going to war with Hitler, beyond explaining that Assad isn't Hitler, Gadaffi isn't Hitler, Hussein isn't Hitler, and so on?
Increasingly, I believe we must start with the fact that we live in a different world. Colonization is gone. Empires of the old model are gone. No powerful nation is plotting that sort of global conquest. In fact, no powerful nation is seriously considering war with other powerful nations.
During these past 68 years of misidentifying new Hitler after new Hitler, there has in fact been no World War III. We haven't just made it 25 years. We'll hit the 75-year mark during the next U.S. presidency. Nuclear weapons, awareness of the costs, understanding of the lack of benefits, established norms against the seizure of territory, the utter unacceptability of colonialism, and the vast increase in understanding of the power of nonviolent action all work against the waging of wars among the wealthy, armed nations. Instead, we have proxy wars, wars of exploitation, and poor-on-poor warfare. And even those wars fail miserably on their own terms. Occupations collapse. Puppets grow legs and wander off.
When World War II happened, war had never been prosecuted as a crime. The prosecutions that followed the war were the first. The seizure of territory was only beginning to be delegitimized. Colonialism was still understood as the route to riches, power, and prestige. War was imagined as a contest between armies on a battlefield, rather than what World War II transformed it into: the slaughter of civilians in their homes.
When World War II happened, there were no nukes, no satellites, no drones. There was no (or little) television, no internet, no WikiLeaks. There was no understanding of the tools of nonviolence. History contained no nonviolent overthrows of dictatorships, few examples of creative nonviolent resistance to tyranny, no teams of human shields, no Arab Spring, no Civil Rights movement, no overcoming of Apartheid, no bloodless revolutions in Eastern Europe, no peace studies programs, no expertise in conflict resolution, and no viable alternatives to war -- much less the thousands of tools since devised, tested, and refined.
When we look back at Thomas Jefferson's slavery, we like to excuse it because he lived in an age in which lots of other people engaged in slavery. He didn't know better, we like to say. He didn't have an easy way out that would be equally profitable with so many side benefits. I think we're a bit generous in this act of forgiving, but I think there's also a grain of truth there. Times do change, and actions are taken in contexts.
When we look back at Franklin Roosevelt's war-making, perhaps we should remember that it took place in an era when nothing else was imagined by many people. Punishing the entire nation of Germany following World War I was not recognized as the time bomb it was, not by most people. Funding fascism as preferable to the horror of communism was not recognized as the Frankenstein experiment it was, not by most people. Hyping the danger of a Nazi takeover of the world and jumping into a war, and then escalating that war into the very worst thing the world has ever seen, was not viewed as a barbaric choice, was not viewed as a choice at all -- not by many people.
We live in a different era. When our President claims he simply must send missiles into Syria, we tell him to think harder. We can forgive FDR for war-making as we forgive those who engaged in slavery or dueling or blood feuds or witch hunts. They were products of their times. But we need not go on acting as if it is forever 1945 -- no matter how much that pretense profits certain people.
If we were to recognize that Hitler isn't coming back, and that we could resist him without war if he did, we might suddenly begin demanding the things that other nations have and the U.S. could easily afford: healthcare, education, a secure and adequate income, parental leave, vacation leave, retirement, public transit, sustainable energy, etc. Lockheed and Raytheon and Northrop Grumman would start making solar panels or start departing this world for the pages of history. In other words, we might shut down the other half of the government from the half that's shut down right now.
The following is an excerpt from my book, War No More: The Case for Abolition:
"There Never Was a Good War or a Bad Peace" or How to Be Against Both Hitler and War
Benjamin Franklin, who said that bit inside the quotation marks, lived before Hitler and so may not be qualified--in the minds of many--to speak on the matter. But World War II happened in a very different world from today's, didn't need to happen, and could have been dealt with differently when it did happen. It also happened differently from how we are usually taught. For one thing, the U.S. government was eager to enter the war, and to a great extent did enter the war, in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, prior to Pearl Harbor.