The Fifty Years War 1.

Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the Peoples Republic of China threatened the survival of millennia of human progress.  They had to be fought to the death.  Otherwise darkness would spread over the Earth.  It would be easy to characterize this as the Children of Darkness versus the Children of Light.  Life isn’t like that.  Instead, squalid moral compromises imposed themselves in this titanic struggle.  So, from 1939 to 1989, we embraced the lesser tyrannies in order to defeat the greater tyrannies.  The United States allied itself with the British Empire and Stalinist Russia to defeat Hitler’s Germany.  Then the United States allied itself with Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, Saudi Arabia, post-Nasserite Egypt, Asian dictatorships (Taiwan, South Korea, South Vietnam), Shavian Iran, then Saddam Hussein against the Islamic Republic of Iran, and a great many African dictatorships.

We got our hands dirty in the process.  Very dirty.  We tolerated the atrocities of inhumane regimes allied to our cause.  We ourselves–and not just the soldiers we sent to do our bidding–committed atrocities.  We advanced the interests of the private corporations that we used as instruments and proxies.  We slighted the humanitarian organizations that expressed an important strand of American idealism.

And we won.  Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union as created by Joseph Stalin, and Communist China as created by Mao Zedong have all been laid in the dust.  We won, but not we alone.  We had allies, notably Britain and its Commonwealth of Nations, and the Western European countries that created the European Union, and Japan.

Squalid moral compromises didn’t always have squalid outcomes.  One great story of the second half of the Twentieth Century has been the expansion of democracy.  Places where democracy failed in the Thirties and Forties (Italy, Austria, Germany, France) have become solidly democratic political systems.  One-time dictatorships (Poland, Hungary, the former Czechoslovakia, the former Yugoslavia, Spain, Portugal, Greece, the Baltic states, Japan) have become democratic societies.  Formal colonial empires have been dismantled, allowing many societies to make a mess of things on the own and for the advantage of their own elites, rather than by and for Western elites.  The idea of Democracy has expanded.  Women have the vote and a greater chance at participation in most Western societies.  “Democracy” has come to mean government action to promote material welfare and opportunity in many countries.

Still, the “Fifty Years’ War” had its costs.  Not all of them were numbered in economic terms or human lives.  The war cost us in social and psychological terms.  Chief among them seems to be the entrenching of a war mind-set.  This appears in the overblown hostility to Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the fear of radical Islam.  Loathsome as these are, neither poses an existential threat.

What have we done, what will we do with our victory?  That is, “What do we offer?”  NOT the “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” declared by Winston Churchill.  Rather we want to offer honest work at decent pay; family homes; the right to your opinion, even if it is nutty or you don’t care to say; equal treatment under the law; and a tolerance for diversity.

What we aspire to offer everyone isn’t what we do offer to everyone yet.  Still, it’s better than wearing a suicide vest into a steamy rural market or writing malware in a freezing tenement.

War Movies 5: “Dresden.”

In retrospect, the Cold War loomed at the end of the Second World War.  This has led to speculation that the Americans and the British unleashed extraordinary air-borne violence against the enemy as much to impress the Russians as to end the war.  In the American case, it was the atomic bombings.  In the British case, it was the fire-bombing of Dresden.

Dresden was a beautiful city (“Florence on the Elbe River”) in eastern Germany.  From 13 through 15 February 1945, 1,200 British and American bombers dropped almost 4,000 tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs on the city.  Although the Nazis claimed that the bombing and the fire-storm it set off killed 200,000 people, the current best estimate is 22,000 to 25,000 dead.  One of those who survived the attack was the American POW Kurt Vonnegut.

“Dresden” (2002) is a German television movie about being on the receiving end of “strategic bombing.”  The movie’s plot is melodramatic and conventional.  A German nurse falls in love with a downed British bomber pilot on the run; her father and her German fiance are diverting morphine meant for the patients onto the black market through a corrupt official so they can buy a hospital in nice safe Switzerland; the nurse’s best friend is a Gentile married to a Jew; the nurse’s little sister is a Valkyrie look-alike having it off with the corrupt official; Mom is popping pills (cue Mick Jagger); the British bomb Dresden, with the downed pilot’s best friend leading the attack; and fire and death rain down on the city as the nurse, her German fiancé, and her British lover try to escape through the inter-connected cellars of the old city.

What do we see in this movie?  There is the prolongation of the air war against cities until the last stages of the war as the Germans launched V-1 and V-2 rockets against London and the Allied air forces bombed, then re-bombed every possible target.  There is the hatred felt by the German civilians for the British air-crew, who sometimes were lynched as “terror-flyers” when they had to parachute onto German soil.  There is the savagery of the dying Nazi regime toward anyone who showed the slightest hint of defeatism.  A woman arrives at the hospital with a head-wound, then the military police arrive to finish the job for having sheltered her deserter-husband.

There are the air-raid precautions as Germans turn off the gas to the stove, gather their possessions, and head for the shelters in the basement of the apartment block when the air-raid sirens sound.  There is the experience of being in the shelters while fire rages above and just outside the sealed doors, and the ground rocks with the explosions.  People pray, comfort frightened children, and light candles as a warning of carbon monoxide, while the bloc-warden tries to maintain order and morale.  There are people sucked into the fire by the draft a 1,000 degree fire creates.  There is the horrific aftermath of an air-raid, with dazed survivors wandering through rubble-choked streets or chalking messages on the walls of their wrecked homes, and the bodies turned to cinder.  There are the rare moral doubts felt by the flyers and senior officers.

What we don’t see in the movie is the successive attacks.  For dramatic reasons, everything is shown as one great attack.  This hides the reality that successive attacks were partly meant to catch the firemen and the EMTs out in the street—and kill them.  Nor do we see the controversies that have swirled around the attack since almost as soon as it happened.