Bad News and the Good War

Published: 1998-08-01

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Joseph Sobran is a nationally-syndicated columnist, lecturer, author, and editor of the monthly newsletter Sobran's (P.O. Box 1383, Vienna, VA 22183). This essay is reprinted from the August 1998 issue of Sobran's.

Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" is the most powerful movie I've seen in years. The opening sequence, already famous, shows the D-Day invasion in twenty minutes of gut-churning horror. War has never looked like this on the screen, and Spielberg surpasses himself to make the experience real to us.

Young soldiers vomit in fear as their landing crafts approach the French coast. When the doors are lowered to let them out, the men in front are instantly cut down. German bullets slam into their chests and helmets even before they can jump into the water. The timing, so unlike other movies, is shocking in itself. We expect our boys – as in other movies – to have a moment to collect themselves, to poise for action, at least to brace themselves for death.

No. That's the movie ritual – the conventional final moment when a man is allowed to strike a final pose, if only of agony. Spielberg serves immediate notice that war isn't like that, ergo this movie isn't like that. By slightly accelerating death, he makes it seem horrible again. This effect is achieved in a merciless split second.

Joseph Sobran, 2007

Joseph Sobran

It gets worse. The boys who make it to shore take hideous wounds. One gropes to pick up the arm that has just been shot off. Another lies babbling "Mama" with his intestines protruding. Another has his face shot away. Waves of blood lap the shore. These things happen so fast they barely have time to register, a chaos of death and mutilation. Spielberg films them with hand-held cameras, in jerky footage that makes you dizzy watching them, against a tremendous din of mortar and machine-gun fire. There are no panoramic shots, as in films like "The Longest Day," to give an epic (and comforting) distance to the violence. It's hard to imagine how the feeling of being under fire could be conveyed more terrifyingly on film.

When the Americans finally capture the cliff they have been storming, they shoot even the Germans who have raised their hands in surrender. It hardly seems like an atrocity; it's more like a relief.

Cut to the office of General George C. Marshall, who is told that one of the soldiers killed on the beach was a boy named Ryan, two of whose three brothers have also died within the week; the third has just landed behind the lines in France. Marshall orders that this last surviving brother be found and removed from combat.

The rest of the movie centers on the squad assigned to save Private Ryan, who as it turns out doesn't want to be saved. Tom Hanks stars as the captain in charge of the mission. He's perfectly cast, though I wouldn't have thought so going in: I associated him with lightweight comedies and sentimental stuff like "Forrest Gump." He's a civilian an English teacher – forced by fate to be an officer. He wants to do his duty and go home. Meanwhile he has to take responsibility for younger men's lives. Hanks convincingly shows courage by taking things one step at a time, without bravado. You root for him, not to kill Germans, but to make it home, where he can just be normal again.

Spielberg says he didn't want to make an anti-war film; he wanted to show the courage of the Americans who fought the war by showing just what the war was.

He has earned the praised of Paul Fussell, whose book Wartime complained that American civilians have always been given a "Disneyfied" picture of combat, without the horror, din, mutilation, and total, trouser-soiling terror of the real thing. We hear a great deal about the government lies these days, but the lies of World War II propaganda have become part of our cultural heritage.

"Saving Private Ryan" is a film Americans need to see before the next time the government wants to send their sons to fight abroad. That's the trouble: it's always abroad. Unlike Europe, Russia, and the Far East, we have no memory of battles near home, of foreign soldiers on our shores, of our cities being bombed. Two-thirds of the 50 million dead in World War II were civilians; virtually no American civilians were harmed.

To this day our perspective on war in general, and World War II in particular, is not only profoundly different from other people's, but essentially naive. Though this movie is the best corrective Hollywood has ever offered, Spielberg doesn't challenge – and in fact believes in – the larger mythology of the war, which is still secular liberalism's holy war. He shows Americans as the rescuers; it just happens that in this case the Yanks are trying to rescue one of their own (even if it transpires that Private Ryan, as befits a young American hero, doesn't want to be rescued).

A lot more revisionism is in order. The American forces killed their share of civilians, from Tokyo to Dresden, and the atomic bomb was, as Fussell notes, part of the brutal logic of the war. It began with optimistic nonsense about "surgical strikes" and "precision bombing" and soon degenerated into indiscriminate mass murder, enthusiastically perpetrated by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill along with the ally Joseph Stalin.

According to the liberal historian James Bacque, the Allies caused the deaths of as many as nine million Germans, mostly civilians, after the war ended. In his book Crimes and Mercies, Bacque describes the policy of mass starvation imposed on Germany during the occupation; he also describes the subsequent cover-up. Charitable donations of food from abroad were banned; the Germans themselves were prevented from acquiring fertilizer for their crops. In effect, the notorious Morgenthau Plan was imposed after all. Bacque quotes a grim anonymous witticism: "The Morgenthau Plan was conceived in sin, died at birth, and lived to a ripe old age." (No such policy was imposed on Japan, oddly enough.)

After piecing the terrible story together, Bacque took it to Drew Middleton of the New York Times, who didn't challenge it but refused to print it. Hailed in Europe, Bacque's carefully documented book has been ignored here. It erases the supposed moral contrast between the Nazis and the Allies, the very foundation of the democratic regime that has displaced traditional monarchy as well as republican constitutional government. Maybe we should think of what we call "the Holocaust" as Hitler's Morgenthau Plan.

Ironically, Bacque has found Soviet records more honest than those of the democracies. The reason for this seeming paradox is simple: the Soviet rulers didn't have to worry about prying journalists and historians. They felt their darkest secrets were safe – as, until recently, they were. So those secrets were recorded with ruthless accuracy. The democratic rulers, on the other hand, couldn't be sure how long the truth could be suppressed, so they withheld or deleted many damning facts from the official records. As a result, the truth has to be gathered indirectly. But millions of deaths couldn't stay hidden forever. Bacque isn't the only one to have found the truth; another historian has arrived at a similar figure.

In time the official mythology of the war will be replaced by a more balanced picture. Not that any new picture will ever have the power of the old myth, but those who are seriously interested in history will realize that the myth is political propaganda. It's already happening, despite efforts to smear all "revisionism." Serious history always "revises" common and often cherished beliefs that spring from partisan motives.

A new picture need not wait on new revelations; to some extent it can be constructed by simple reflection on the obvious. It has been customary since World War II began to censure American "isolationism" and French "cowardice" for the desire to avoid war with Germany. But the isolationists were generally people who thought war wasn't in ordinary Americans' interest, and in retrospect their arguments look better than ever.

The war ended with 50 million dead (three times the carnage of the Great War, as it used to be called), with much of Europe devastated, and with Stalin in possession of several Christian countries with more nuclear weapons than heart might wish, to say no more about it; vindication enough, you might think, for those misgivings. But in the eyes of the progressive-minded, having been proved right in spades is no excuse for isolationism.

It's no longer disputed that Roosevelt and Churchill secretly schemed to get America into the war; in fact their admirers cite their efforts, and even their lies, as evidence of their far-seeing statesmanship at a time when lesser folk overhelmingly (and short-sightedly, we are told) opposed sending their sons abroad to kill and die.

Charles Lindbergh addresses a meeting

Charles Lindbergh addresses a meeting

When Charles Lindbergh's eloquent radio speeches brought an avalanche of anti-war mail to the White House, Roosevelt launched a smear campaign against Lindbergh and illegally ordered the FBI to open his mail; he also had the phones of many letter writes tapped. To this day Lindbergh is portrayed as a Nazi sympathizer, though when the war began he tried to enlist in the armed forces; he was prevented from serving by order of Roosevelt himself. (He finally found a niche as an unpaid adviser to an aeronautics firm.)

Lindbergh is also remembered as an anti-Semite for saying, at an America First rally, that the Roosevelt Administration, the British, and the Jews were leading the agitation for war. This was perfectly true; moreover, Lindbergh said he understood why the Jews felt as they did about Germany; nevertheless, war wasn't in America's interest. But mere identification of Jewish interests – even interests Jews freely discussed among themselves – was taboo. (As it still is, even though we are expected to give Jewish interests a sort of tacit primacy.)

The British secret service actually murdered an American opponent of intervention on American soil, while British propaganda, often planted in popular movies, tried to enlist American sympathy against Germany. Much of the pro-war propaganda absurdly said that Hitler planned to invade the United States, when he was never even able to mount an invasion across the English Channel (as British officials, according to internal memos later released, fully realized at the time).

The standard mythology constantly omits what was already known – and remembered – in the years between the two world wars. In fact much of what was then obvious is now virtually secret.

The "cowardly" French remembered the Great War. It was a fresh memory, horrible, tragic, ineffaceable. Only twenty years earlier (in the 1970s, in our terms) nearly every family had sent a son to war; more than a million never came home, millions of others were wounded. Those who recalled it had no desire to repeat the experience with their sons.

The unhappy choice facing France and other countries was another war with Germany or the prospect of Communism. And people of Christian heritage, religious or not, knew what was happening to the Christians of the Soviet Union (another story the New York Times overlooked). Russian refugees flooded Western Europe, telling their stories.

The only way out of the dilemma was surrender to Germany. Under the circumstances, German occupation must have seemed much more bearable than the alternatives – except, of course, to the Jews and the political Left, whose perspective now constitutes the official myth without qualification.

Charles Coughlin addresses radio listeners

Charles Coughlin addresses radio listeners

An instructive footnote to all this is the minor myth of Father Charles Coughlin, now remembered only as an anti-Semite in the age of Hitler. From a Christian standpoint, Coughlin might best be described as one of the few public figures in America to tell the truth about Communism at a time when what might be called organized public opinion, led by Roosevelt and the Times, insisted on seeing the Soviet Union as "progressive."

Coughlin was an immensely popular radio preacher for many years before he touched the same electric fence Lindbergh would soon touch by referring publicly to Jewish interests. But as anti-Nazi propaganda intensified in the late 1930s, he called attention not only to Communist crimes but to Jewish participation in and support for Communism.

Coughlin by no means condemned all Jews; time and again, he insisted that no Jew who believed in the God of Abraham could also believe in Communism. All the same, many secularized Jews were Communist or pro-Communist, and the Soviet Union's original Communist elite had been predominantly of Jewish stock. Religious or not, such Jews were ferociously hostile to Christianity (as Europeans understood perfectly well).

It was hard to state the case fairly, and harder to get a fair hearing. The Coughlin furor came to a head after the Kristallnacht riots of 1938, when Coughlin devoted his regular Sunday broadcast to the Jewish question. Yes, he agreed that the violence and official robbery directed against 600,000 German Jews was outrageous. But why, he asked, was there no comparable public indignation against the Communists, who had murdered 20 million Russian and Ukrainian Christians?

The broadcast brought an immediate storm of denunciations and accusations. The following week Coughlin quoted several of the harshest charges made against him, then invited his audience to listen to the offending broadcast again and judge for themselves whether the charges were true.

After replaying the previous week's speech which clearly refuted the charges – he quoted a recent New York Times report of a convention of the American Jewish Committee. A St. Louis delegate name Abraham Levin had proposed that the Committee add to its statement of principles a declaration of anti-Communism. The proposal was denounced so violently that Levin withdrew it.

Today all that is left of Coughlin's reputation is what his enemies said of him. The broad brush of "anti-Semitism" obscures the details and nuances of what he actually said. And while we still hear – incessantly – of Pius XII's "silence" about Nazism, Coughlin gets to credit whatsoever for telling the truth about Communism at a time when so many others were not only silent about its crimes, but complicit in them.

The official myth of the prelude to World War II omits all mention of Communism, which terrified Europe. Germany was only one of several countries that had narrowly escaped a Communist revolution. This fact explains not only Hitler's popularity, but the much more widespread view that he was the lesser evil. The Jews had good reason to feel otherwise, but by the same token most gentiles felt that Communism was by far the greater threat to themselves.

But the Roosevelt Administration, ignoring the mass starvation of Ukraine and countless other atrocities, gave diplomatic recognition and other assistance to Stalin. Roosevelt compared the Soviet Constitution favorably to the US Constitution, assuring Americans that it guaranteed freedom of religion. His policy of "quarantining the aggressors" was never applied to the Soviet Union, even after its invasions of Poland, Finland, and the Baltic states. The notion that war forced him into an alliance with Stalin is a sentimental exculpation; he had befriended Stalin from his first year in office. The war merely gave him a patriotic pretext for continuing to do so.

The truth, in order to be suppressed, doesn't have to be denied. It can be systematically ignored. After all, even denial acknowledges that there is something to be discussed; it creates awareness in spite of itself. A studious silence is far more efficacious. If the major channels of information never mention a subject, it virtually ceases to exist.

Take Steven Spielberg. He has made a heroic effort to tell the truth about World War II, and he has shown things others have hidden. But like every member of his (and my) generation, he is the unwitting heir of lies, and his film tells a story shaped, in spite of his intentions, by the official mythology. In our time telling the truth requires more than honest intentions; it requires enormous cunning, and sometimes guile.

Additional information about this document
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Author(s): Joseph Sobran
Title: Bad News and the Good War
Sources: The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 18, no. 3 (May/June 1999), pp. 32-35; reprinted from Sobran's newsletter, August 1998.
Published: 1998-08-01
First posted on CODOH: Feb. 7, 2013, 6 p.m.
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