The Corner

Moral Victory Is Total Victory

Let me just add one important observation to David’s splendid and much remarked upon essay yesterday about why and how the U.S. was victorious against Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany in World War II. Yes, we were ruthless in prosecuting the war — not only in Japan, with the atomic destruction of two cities and the firebombing of Tokyo (for a brilliant fictional treatment of the latter, be sure to read James Dickey’s To the White Sea), but also in the near-demolition of Germany as well. Every major city in Germany was destroyed and both Hamburg and Dresden were incinerated, the bodies of their inhabitants literally blown apart by the force of the bonfire’s incendiary winds: In Dresden, human heads rained down from the sky like bowling balls after the bodies of the victims evaporated in the flames.

And yet, right until the end, both Axis nations were prepared to fight on. There was no popular uprising against either Hitler or the Emperor; opposition in Germany came from the conservative aristocratic officer corps, who viewed the nasty little Austro-Bavarian as a grubby socialist, while in Japan the younger officers wanted to keep fighting, even after Hirohito had decided to call it quits, and even staged an abortive coup to prevent surrender. In the end, Hitler killed himself, Doenitz staggered on for 23 days, administering a National Socialist state that had vanished, and Hirohito and Tojo accepted the Allies’ demands for unconditional surrender. 

But the military victories were only part of the triumph. What made the end of World War II definitive was the purging of the mindsets that had occasioned it. In Germany, the surviving top Nazis were executed or sentenced to long prison terms, the Fuehrerprinzip was utterly discredited, and the population that had been held in its sway was forced to confront its destructive reality. In Japan, we hanged Tojo but allowed — allowed – Hirohito to remain as Emperor but publicly stripped him of his “godhood” and made the Japanese see that he was just a man. Only then, minus the Fuehrer and their god, were Germany and Japan truly defeated, and thus free to rebuild and rejoin the family of nations.

We’re way too politically correct to do something like that today, of course, and so we fight pointless wars for speechwriter mush about “human freedom” that are all tactics and no strategy, with no apparent political objectives other than to see “elections” staged, some schools built, and some cups of tea drunk. But we did not fight to “liberate” the Germans from Hitler or the Japanese from imperial militarism: We fought them to crush them and eradicate the root of the evil that animated them. They started it, we finished it. Which is why we haven’t had to refight them.

During our own Civil War, Sherman’s March to the Sea did not simply have a military objective, to slice the Confederacy in two; it also had a moral component, which was to break the South’s will to fight, make it realize it could not win and that its very cause was unjust. Quoth Sherman:

You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. . . . You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride.

That is the correct moral response to the problem of warfare: The only “moral victory” worth winning is total victory. As FDR said in his address to Congress and the nation following Pearl Harbor:

As Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense. But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.

With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph — so help us God.

“Make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.” And he did. Can you imagine an American president saying something like that today, much less actually doing it? David rightly points out that “in the fight against evil, there are times when the strong response is the right response.” I’ll go him one better: In the fight against existential evil, the definitive response is the only response. 

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