Today is Purple Heart Day. The best way to honor those who have sacrificed is to ensure that future generations do not have to bear the same horrors.
For the second time in as many weeks, I’ve seen a Conservative figure wax nostalgic about World War II. First it was Nigel Farage, talking in vague terms about Dunkirk, and lost American honor. And this morning, Joe Scarborough tweeted, “Young men in the 1940s liberated Europe from Nazism and the Pacific from the Japanese Empire. Today, too many stay home playing video games.”
Yes Joe, everyone knows that in 1939 there was a Xbox in every store window, and it was just the fundamental moral toughness of that generation that led them to actually go and get their leg blown off by a howitzer in Europe rather than just play World War II in Call of Duty.
But Scarborough’s really weird insistence that what this generation needs is a good old fashioned war to toughen them up deserves scrutiny. The “greatest generation” didn’t achieve that title because they willingly threw themselves into fixing the world’s problems. People like my grandparents were instead dealt the worst possible hands by their parents or grandparents’ generation. They did what they had to because they literally had no other choice.
Let’s unpack all of this. The “Great War” was purely elective. It was a system of Imperial powers who measured their pride and self worth with how much of the map had their little flag displayed on it. Older empires like Austria and Russia wanted to expand their stake. The largest and most successful, France and Britain, wanted to defend their stake. And the rising empire Germany sought to drastically expand their stake. Nationalism has been one of the most malignantly harmful forces of the modern world. And it was exclusively at play here. The leadership of Europe, en masse, decided that their own petty pride was worth more than the lives of their children. At best, they thought that they could massacre their fellow Europeans as efficiently as they had massacred natives in their colonies around the world. Instead, the horrors they had inflicted on Africa and Asia for generations was now visited on their own children and grandchildren.
The First World War did not end in a grand battle. After years of starvation and brutal combat, the people of Central and Eastern Europe rose in revolt, throwing of the yoke of Authoritarianism. But in Britain and France, the leadership chose not to embrace their newly freed fellows in Democracy. Georges Clemenceau and David Lloyd George opted for revanchism instead. They pushed for a peace that would fatally cripple any government that willingly signed it. The new German “Weimar” Republic, run by civilians who had not pushed their country into war the way the Prussian aristocracy had, briefly considered a resumption of hostilities to avoid signing something that would cripple their Democracy. But they could not imagine a resumption of the carnage. They signed, and their children were doomed to another round of carnage.
In Asia, Japan was only emboldened by these events. Russia and Germany were no longer potential rivals in the East. They began to more aggressively expand at the expense of their neighbors. America wasn’t concerned about massacred civilians in China; for them the prime moral imperatives were their own colonial possessions in the Philippines and Pacific islands.
In Germany, the same generals who had counseled the Weimar government to seek peace with the Allies now disavowed and denied their own actions. One of the most significant factors that led to the rise of Fascism in Germany was that Hindenburg and Ludendorff started loudly asserting that the war was in fact winnable, and that the betrayal of both leftist insurgents and the new Republic at home had caused them to surrender. It should be noted that Erich Ludendorff was an early convert to the Nazi Party, and Paul von Hindenburg, as the President of the Republic his so thoroughly despised, named Adolf Hitler chancellor in 1933.
The “Greatest Generation” were themselves saddled with the Great Depression. It must be noted that economic contractions happen largely independently of environmental factors. Men don’t spontaneously decide to stop working en masse. A region going arid or a vein of ore running dry does not cripple an entire economy. Instead, economic downturns are decisions that people with economic power make, when they decide that the preservation of the value of their own wealth is more important than the welfare of their fellow citizens.
On virtually every level, the Second World War was preventable. Embracing Nationalist expansionism was a choice. Embracing a policy of bitter revenge instead of nation building after the First World War was a choice. Embracing free market economic policies that lead to inequality and instability was a choice. These were all mistakes that were made when the young men fighting in France in 1940 were children.
Conservatives have seen too many movies. Piers Morgan recently tweeted, “Can you imagine if social media existed during WW2? This generation is so absurdly soft by comparison to my grandparents’ era. Toughen up!” It’s an interesting perspective from someone who never served in the military. Indeed, during the Gulf War, Joe Scarborough was enjoying life in an air conditioned office.
Our world is heading towards other calamities as great as the Second World War. Manmade Climate Change itself promises to transform our way of life as profoundly as any other factor in recent history. Yet the people in charge of our country are steadfastly committed that they will do nothing to mitigate it.
Others have speculated that with the current resurgence of right wing nationalism, our planet is heading towards another great calamity of mass war. If such a bloodletting occurs, the current generation of young people will bear it as young people have always borne the dreams of carnage visited on them by their fathers.
When Piers Morgan or Nigel Farage talk about war, they don’t imagine their own children, let alone themselves fighting in it. They don’t picture themselves burying the 60,000 corpses of young sons that littered the fields of France in 1940. They can only imagine themselves sitting in their comfortable lounges, awash in carefully curated and sanitized images of distant glory, secure in the thought that if his son cradled his dying friend in his arms, perhaps they would get along better.
People have made much about Joe Scarborough’s recent feud with Donald Trump. Don’t buy it. Our own warmonger President skipped out of his generation’s optional war by claiming his feet hurt. When Trump at last gets his wish, and American corpses are stacked like cordwood in Iran or North Korea, he can feel like his own youthful cowardice is vindicated. All it will take is the frivolous loss of tens of thousands young lives for men like Scarborough to fall back in line and speak in glowing terms about the state of our nation.