Shedding blood for liberty

by John Quiggin on September 22, 2007

A brawl has erupted over a statement in the stump speech of our favorite Republican candidate Fred Thompson, who asserts that the US has “shed more blood for other people’s liberty than any other combination of nations in the history of the world” As the WaPo points out, our Russian allies lost millions in WWII alone, as did Britain and France in WWI which (at least nominally) they entered ‘that small nations might be free’. In fact, US casualties in World War I (about 120 000 killed and 200 000 wounded) were comparable to those of Australia and New Zealand,which between them had about 5 per cent of the US population.

Unsurprisingly, various people have tried to quibble by saying that the other losses weren’t in defence of freedom, so that Thompson’s claim is true by default. But in that case, Thompson ought to have said something like “the US, alone among nations, fights for the freedom of others” which at least sounds like standard meaningless stump-speech rhetoric rather than a false factual claim.

Leaving motivations aside, the striking fact is that Thompson’s claim is pretty much the opposite of the truth. The US is notable among major nations in how little it has suffered in foreign wars, and this helps to explain why the war party is so strong there.

Until Vietnam, by the official count, the US had never lost a foreign war. In fact, US forces had hardly ever even been in retreat – in both the World Wars, the entry of substantial US forces marked the turning point for the Allied side. In the World Wars, the US lost far fewer soliders, in relation to its population, than most other countries. And, with the exception of some modest rationing in World War II, the civilian population of the US has been essentially unaffected by war.

I’m not saying this in criticism. One reason for this relatively benign experience has been that for most of its history, the US was more reluctant to go to war than other countries, and, by comparison with the European empires of the 19th century, unwilling to engage in wars of imperial expansion*. That hasn’t stopped Americans accepting some fairly hypocritical pretexts for war, but then hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

The problem now is that most people in Europe and elsewhere have learned from experience that war is always bad, and usually worse than even bad alternatives, but many Americans have not. For the Republican core, war is a positive good, and victory the manifest destiny of the United States. The myth of American invincibility is modified only by the possibility of domestic treason, which accounts for the defeat in Vietnam and is already being used as a pre-emptive explanation for defeat in Iraq.

The Republican core can’t be ignored. They make up 30 per cent of the population, and count for even more with the opinion elite, and the Foreign Policy Community. Worse still, the rest of the Foreign Policy Community, and most of the opinion elite more generally, differ only in degree from this position. You can’t be taken seriously by the Foreign Policy Community unless you accept the premise that “America can invade and attack other countries when vital American interests are threatened”, and the practical implication that such threats are common enough to require regular resort to war.

Perhaps this will change when Bush is gone and the scale of the disaster in Iraq sinks in. It seems that the lessons of the futility of war can be learned only through repeated bloody catastrophe. The best that can be said is that, if the US can learn from Vietnam and Iraq the lessons that it took two world wars to teach Europe, perhaps some progress is being made.

  • This restraint didn’t extend to Native Americans.

{ 87 comments }

1

Idiot/Savant 09.22.07 at 11:02 pm

Perhaps this will change when Bush is gone and the scale of the disaster in Iraq sinks in.

I don’t think so. Weaning Europe off war required the repeated devastation of their cities and cultural centres and the loss of an appreciable fracation of their population, so that everywhere you looked you saw the ruin, the wreckage, and the consequences of such insanity in the crippled and the bereaved. The Iraq folly has done that to the Iraqis – but America is more or less completely untouched. 3,500 dead? Tens of thousands wounded? It’ll be invisible to them. And with the Republicans already crying “treason”, they’ll be able to safely go on thinking that war is good and without real consequences.

2

abb1 09.22.07 at 11:05 pm

There’s no 30% of the population who want war, not even 10%. They are just being manipulated. It’s all in economics and the way political system interprets and actualizes them.

3

joel turnipseed 09.22.07 at 11:18 pm

John,

I think one aspect of your post is absolutely right: most Americans have no idea how little we’ve sacrificed, or suffered, relative to almost every other nation in the industrialized world in the 20th C. wars. For that matter, how much we gained, relatively-speaking, from the two World Wars (WWI moved world’s financial center to U.S.; WWII destroyed, more or less, entire rest of industrial infrastructure in the world).

That said… I think there’s actually a non-trivial sense in which Thompson may be right. I have to go eat dinner, but suffice to say: WWII isn’t the linchpin of what I’m thinking (after all: we didn’t enter that war until we were attacked by Japan & Germany declared war on us).

OK, back in an hour or so…

4

Jeff R. 09.22.07 at 11:33 pm

Well, there’s a hyperliteralist sense, in which you can probably state that the Union casualties in the Civil War are probably higher than any total of any other war that’s end result was the abolition of slavery in a region.

And if the Civil War’s own toll hasn’t done much to teach the lesson, well, the cynic in me will say that means that they just don’t stick, and Europe will be at each others’ collective throat again in a generation or two.

Also, Mexicans don’t really fit in the ‘Native Americans’ category, and yet…

5

joejoejoe 09.22.07 at 11:42 pm

Here’s the U.S. War Party line at it’s most ridiculous:

“The fundamental question raised by Yalta is: What should powerful democracies do to aid and protect those who live under totalitarian regimes? Bush rightly called Yalta an “attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability [that] left a continent divided and unstable.” That sounds an awful lot like the implicit deal the U.S. struck for decades with the regimes of the Middle East. Bush’s words may have been spoken in Riga, but they were meant to encourage democrats from Moscow to Tehran.” – National Review editorial, 5/05

It’s irrelevant that 50 million people in the Soviet Union and Europe lost their lives to war, famine and disease in WWII. Given the benefit of hindsight the U.S. War Party sees WWII as truncated. More war would have made things better.

6

derek 09.22.07 at 11:47 pm

It’s already been pointed out that America’s WWII losses can’t count as “for the freedom of others” because they they only “declared” war on Japan after Japan declared war on them. Germany declared war on them first also.

However, Britain’s and France’s losses *do* count, as they declared war on Germany when it would not withdraw from Poland as they demanded. Britain also declared war on Japan first.

This is not the sort of dick-size contest I like to start, but if Fred Thompson wants to, he can bring it on.

7

Idiot/Savant 09.23.07 at 12:08 am

“My pile of corpses is bigger than your pile of corpses”!

8

engels 09.23.07 at 12:28 am

there’s a hyperliteralist sense, in which you can probably state that the Union casualties in the Civil War are probably higher than any total of any other war that’s end result was the abolition of slavery in a region

The only problem with that argument is that half of the American casualties in that war were for the rather less edifying cause of denying other people’s liberty…

9

LarryM 09.23.07 at 12:36 am

There’s no 30% of the population who want war, not even 10%.

Haha, good one. Try 70 to 90 percent, at least. This is one sick fucking country.

Well, I mean, they may not “want” war in the sense that they would prefer to have the kind of “peace” where no other nation threatened our power in even trivial ways. But let there be any threat to “interests,” broadly defined, and most of our citizens will say heck yeah, let’s “kill some people, that will teach them.” USA, USA and all of that.

Heck, I’d say that a significant minority, maybe even a slim majority, of our foreign policy elite would even take that deal. Not ALL of them actively seek war – some of them just prefer war to even a small chance that some pissant little country will defy our will. And they have the VAST majority of the American people behind them.

Which is why Ward Churchill, despite his other idiocies, and perhaps a bit more insensitivity to then recent event, was basically correct. Little Eichmanns indeed.

10

LarryM 09.23.07 at 12:38 am

Though it occurs to me that the fact that I’m saying that abb1 doesn’t go far enough in his analysis, that’s a sign that I’m pretty far from the median on this one.

11

Tracy W 09.23.07 at 1:20 am

Is anyone else do a double-take at the implication that the Russians in WWII were shedding blood for other people’s liberty?

If Stalin had had his druthers the whole of the world would have been under his dictatorship.

Fred Thompson’s statement itself is silly, but contrasting American casulties with Russian casulties on this topic is sillier.

12

minneapolitan 09.23.07 at 1:43 am

Tracy W., why are you sock-puppeting for Anne Applebaum?

Sure, Uncle Joe would have liked to take over the whole world (except, that whole socialism-in-one-country stuff kinda undercuts that idea, doesn’t it?)

But do you really think that the average Soviet soldier was out there fighting the Hun just for the sake of Comrade Stalin? Do you have any proof that the Red Army was any less motivated to battle Nazism than the Allies? Exactly the opposite is my reading.

The Flying Justice Tribunal sentences you to watch Иваново детство (Ivan’s Childhood) (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1962) until you cry your eyes out.

13

bob mcmanus 09.23.07 at 2:00 am

Imperialist and expansionist and hegemonist from Plymouth Rock thru Daniel Boone and Mad Anthony Wayne and the Monroe Doctrine to the present day. It is the core and meaning of America, the land of opportunity. America may be the most aggressive nation, over a sustained period, in history. Over 300 years of expansion, is that more than Rome?

Just took a while to reach the coast.

14

sburnap 09.23.07 at 2:01 am

I don’t dispute the larger point, but it must be remembered that the reason the Nazis declared war on the US is because the US was, at the time, giving massive amounts of aid to both Britain and the Soviet Union, to essentially the maximum extent that Roosevelt could get away with given political opinion in this country. The US could easily have simply told Britain and the Soviet Union “no”, and stayed out of the war in Europe entirely. World War I was much the same.

Of course, one reason the US has suffered so little is that it’s had the wisdom to hold most of its wars in other people’s countries.

But obviously Britain was fighting foreign wars before the US even existed and IIRC lost more men in each of the two wars it fought alongside the US in.

15

joel turnipseed 09.23.07 at 2:04 am

OK, I’m less sure about this now that I’ve thought about it, but I’ll throw it out there as a “possible non-ridiculous thing that Thompson or his speech writers were thinking.” It turns out to be dangerous, but that’s a different thing.

But first, adding insult to injury to the larger point about American’s historical ignorance w/r/t the larger issue of sacrifice in war: more lives were lost in the Battle of Stalingrad (on both sides) than the U.S. has lost in every battle it’s ever fought, including both sides of the U.S. Civil War–and the Soviets lost more people in the Siege of Leningrad than the U.S. in every war it’s ever fought, and almost as many people died in the Battle of the Somme.

Now, my initial thought about Thompson’s statement was that it was just completely stupid. Then I started walking through the various wars I knew something about (and a few I know only hazily), and thought, “Well, if we’re talking about wars in which one of the major combatants enters the war to ‘shed … blood for other people’s liberty,’ and does so on other shores than it’s own as a constitutive aspect of that commitment, perhaps the only competitor the U.S. has for this claim is Great Britain & its Commonwealth. As Derek says, it gets into a silly pissing contest at this point and I’m not interested in pursuing it further except to say it raises the question:

“… And how many, exactly, of these little adventures in liberty have turned out well for any of the parties involved?”

16

engels 09.23.07 at 2:33 am

Is anyone else do a double-take at the implication that the Russians in WWII were shedding blood for other people’s liberty?

If Stalin had had his druthers the whole of the world would have been under his dictatorship.

Nice. I think you have just run together the motivations of all the ordinary Russians who gave their lives in World War II to defeat the Nazis with those of Joseph Stalin. Perhaps you should think about that for a second.

Moreover the post was taking per arguendo all the claims to be “fighting for liberty” at face value, including some highly dubious ones like Britain’s and France’s in WWI (ever given much thought to what the British establishment’s “druthers” really were round about 1914?), but don’t let that stop you launching into yet another tedious ideological sermon about the evils of Stalin and Soviet communism, especially if it enables to you to disparage the sacrifice — from which, and it seems almost crass to point it out, all of us here owe our current way of life — of 20 million Russians at the same time.

17

engels 09.23.07 at 2:36 am

As others have said, this thread can only go downhill from here on in so I’ll sign off.

18

Aulus Gellius 09.23.07 at 2:38 am

As many people have pointed out, this is a deeply silly calculation. To put in one more aspect of that silliness: of course America entered the World Wars late and was less involved than France and Russia. America is not in Europe. It’s separated by what I’m told is a rather large ocean. So it’s not that surprising that Americans were slower to react to German aggression.

Also (having claimed that the calculation is silly, I will of course join in), on the Civil War: the question was blood shed for “other people’s” freedom, which I take to mean “people of other countries” (though I suppose it could just mean “non-soldiers”). The people whose freedom the Union Army fought for were Americans.

19

franck 09.23.07 at 2:57 am

engels,

What about all the ordinary Russians who gave their lives to invade Finland? Or the ordinary Russians who invaded Poland and the Baltic states after Stalin joined forces in an alliance with Hitler? Are they counted in the heroic 20 millions or not, and how much did they contribute to the later killings?

20

roger 09.23.07 at 3:24 am

It isn’t so clear what fighting for ‘freedom’ means. Take the American Revolution. From the angle of Tom Paine, the revolution was clearly a step forward in getting rid of monarchical tyranny and showing the world that a Republic was possible.

But from the viewpoint of the slaves and the Indian nations, like the Shawnee, the war was one between an empire that recognized the rights of Indians and claimed to want to emancipate the slaves, and a genocidal bunch of slaveholders. Now, just as one is glad Stalin instead of Hitler won, one is glad that George Washington rather than George III won. But who is this ‘one’? War is always going to be a crime against somebody. That isn’t surprising, since it uses the tools of crime to effect an act of, at best, some kind of minimal justice.

I do think it is guaranteed that a nation that spends more on the war industry than all the rest of the nations combined has long ago crossed a line into egregious criminality. Add in the Clinton-Bush policy of privatizing war by hiring mercenaries (from Cohen’s Dyncorps hires in Bosnia to Blackwater in Baghdad), and you have crime plus tyranny. A double shot!

21

Lord Acton 09.23.07 at 3:34 am

Idiot/Savant posted:

“…America is more or less completely untouched. 3,500 dead? Tens of thousands wounded? It’ll be invisible to them..”

He is correct.

What Bush sold the U.S. Senate and the media on was a ‘Short Victorious War’. Which, for the most part, on an historical scale, is what we received.

The current U.S. combat casulty rate is not that much higher than the ‘peace time’ casualty rate of the past decade.

The ‘War for Iraq’ may have cost us a small bit of treasure and a small bit of blood, but it has been fought without undue sacrifice on the part of Civilian America.

Which explains why, along with the lack of a military draft, there have been no mass protests since the war BEGAN. Most of my fellow Americans really can’t be bothered to care about this specific issue.

The percentage of eligible voters casting general election ballots in 2008 will not be much higher, if at all, than in past elections.

Now, what REALLY irks most of the posters here is that most Americans really can’t be bothered to care about the rest of the world IN GENERAL.

And most of us couldn’t care less about your thoughts or opinions of our actions/culture/life styles/politics/economics etc. etc. either.

The 20th Century was the American Century.

The 21st Century will be more of the same.

Sucks to be you.

22

engels 09.23.07 at 4:03 am

Franck – Firstly, I’d already said I was bowing out of this discussion; secondly, it’s hard to see any direct relevance from your rambling sequence of rhetorical questions to anything I wrote; thirdly, you appear to be under the mistaken impression that I am interested in defending the claim that somebody or other was “fighting for liberty”; other than that I would refer you to the second paragraph of Roger’s last comment.

23

Jean Lepley 09.23.07 at 4:29 am

A couple of points. On this ofted stated “fact” that we’ve never lost a war, Americans are often shocked to visit Canada and discover that THEY think they won the War of 1812. That’s indeed a fair assessment of the case. The western states (they were the hawks!) apparently saw our northern neighbor as an easy conquest; “why, with the militia of Tennessee [or was it Kentucky?] Canada will be ours” is the quote I remember from an eye-opening American history book (which also demolished the argument that British impressment of American sailors was the “cause” of the war — why then did the sea-faring state of Massachusetts abstain from it?)

On #8’s (( think) statement that in the Civil War approximately half of the losses were “for the purpose of destroying other people’s freedom.” For me, the tragedy of that war (captured in Killer Angels, as well as in the scholarly OF Cause and Country) is the way men on BOTH sides of that bloody conflict thought they were fighting fir the cause of freedom. Read the letters!

One more quibble. Germany declared war on the US, and in fact was provoked into doing so by US “state documents” fabricated by the British secret service and “leaked” to the Germans. They were calculated to send Herr Hitler into a rage, for it was not at all obvious that America WOULD actively engage in the European war front; the British were worried that we wouldn’t, so they took steps. . . I d always wondered why Hitler was so stupid as to declare war on America. (A Man Call Intrepid explains this and other stories of the British secret service.)

24

joel turnipseed 09.23.07 at 5:09 am

That’s what we need Lord Acton: besides-the-point middle-finger waving! Atta boy. To turn a cliche I’m sure you use all the time: “I don’t agree with what you have to say, but I’d go (hell, already went) to war for your right to say it.”

Of course, while that doesn’t give me any special privilege in this regard, that also means I’m free to say, “You’re an embarrassing moron.”

[Aside: but… why would an American chauvinist choose a Brit avatar? Why not ‘Chesty Puller’ or ‘General Patton’ or something? Maybe… ‘Nathan Bedford Forrest’ would be your style?]

25

cvj 09.23.07 at 5:14 am

Fred Thompson should not count the US soldiers lost taking our liberty during the Philippine-American war.

26

Anon 09.23.07 at 5:52 am

Hey, no offense, but if you spend your time seriously considering anything Fred Thompson says, you get what you deserve. The guy makes Rudy Giuliani look like Jacques Derrida.

27

Phoenician in a time of Romans 09.23.07 at 7:05 am

In fact, US forces had hardly ever even been in retreat – in both the World Wars, the entry of substantial US forces marked the turning point for the Allied side.

This depends on how you define “the Allied side” in WWII. Germany’s big push for Moscow was thrown back and failed a few days before any substantive Lend Lease aid reached the front. At that point, the Germans could not win against the Soviets; “all” the USSR had to do was to keep fighting and they would win through attrition.

Germany lost the war to the USSR, and would have lost it without US help.

28

joel turnipseed 09.23.07 at 7:09 am

Except: Giuliani doesn’t care for his hair half as much as Derrida seemed to, at least if Kirby Dick’s documentary is any guide… Thompson, though, might have given him a run.

More seriously: I think this does matter, and does need to be corrected, because it’s a non-trivial sign of the way, way, way too many otherwise serious Americans just have no effing clue about history or the dynamics of the rest of the world in which they live (including the U.S.’s often totalizing/polarizing role in it).

If more U.S. politicians and generals thought like, or say read, USMC Col. Thomas Hammes (whose The Sling and the Stone is overly simplistic, but a nevertheless bracing corrective to the Bush Co. Hooyahism), or even cigar-chomping Anthony Zinni, we wouldn’t have such ridiculous deference to the “Foreign Policy Community” or the fear of countering, within too many business and social circles, ignoramuses like “Lord Acton.”

Moreover, if more Americans reflected on the advantages they gained in the history John outlined above they would be quick to realize that the U.S. got, in effect, two gigantic lucky breaks in the 20th Century: two lucky breaks that aren’t likely to come again. As it stands, even though we received these advantages we’re now dumber, less healthy, smaller (but fatter!), more deeply in debt, and… help me out here people: feel free to pile on… than most of the rest of the industrialized world.

O.K., just because I’m on a roll and I’m going to bed and I feel like typing a few more grafs: We have unequivocally won just three wars of consequence in the 20th Century: The Philippine Insurrection, World War Two (Pacific Theater), and the Gulf War. In the first we faced an enemy vastly out-trained and out-gunned and just barely politically aware (sorry CVJ, but Rizal was executed in 1896 and the KKK only six years old when the U.S. defeated the Spaniards and took the P.I. as booty in 1898), in the second we threw everything we had at the battle, and in the third we faced a demoralized enemy in perfect circumstances for our combined (and vastly more powerful) arms. We got nowhere in most of our Caribbean and Central American adventures, fought to a draw in Korea, lost in Vietnam, in Lebanon, in Somalia, are still fighting, with increased resistance, in Iraq and Afghanistan… In short: for the world’s most powerful country, we don’t exactly have a great track record. But then: neither does anyone else… the 20th Century may have been, as Luce said, the American Century–but it was also perhaps the last one in which anyone could just go and take a country (and really, that description may well belong even to the 19th, as the only successful counter-insurgencies in the 20th century were those in Malaysia, in El Salvador, in Oman, and in the P.I., AFAIK).

Which is to say: I doubt this little rant will do it, but I really, really wish someone would put a nail in the coffin of “American Exceptionalism” and “Manifest Destiny” and all the other bullshit that pollutes the American Psyche and just, oh, I don’t know: pay attention…?

29

kvenlander 09.23.07 at 7:32 am

striking fact is that Thompson’s claim is pretty much the opposite of the truth

Striking? A lying Republican? You don’t say. But Anon #26 is right – I never understood what Derrida was trying to say either.

30

Chris Bertram 09.23.07 at 8:40 am

I’m glad of your footnote re the Native Americans, John. The fact that the United States is just as much the product of a westwards imperial expansion as modern Russia is the product of an eastwards one, was a point I made in a post a couple of years back

http://crookedtimber.org/2005/12/28/the-american-empire/

31

Dave 09.23.07 at 8:43 am

But of course, if the UK had not been holding the fort in the west, and causing trouble in the Med [Yugoslavia/Greece ’41], the invasion of the USSR would probably NOT have baulked at the gates of Moscow… And then roll on Joe Kennedy, Prescott Bush et al…

32

hidari 09.23.07 at 9:34 am

‘But from the viewpoint of the slaves and the Indian nations, like the Shawnee, the war was one between an empire that recognized the rights of Indians and claimed to want to emancipate the slaves, and a genocidal bunch of slaveholders. Now, just as one is glad Stalin instead of Hitler won, one is glad that George Washington rather than George III won. But who is this ‘one’? ‘

One might also add that there is there is a counter-example to the ‘George Washington was right’ theory: Canada. Canada of course, did NOT fight for its independence: it remained part of the Empire. But, last time I checked, Canada was a democracy, and a remarkably stable one at that. Moreover, my understanding is that that native population are doing rather better in Canada, at least politically, than they are doing in the U.S.

Canada of course did not have a gigantic and vicious civil war in the 19th century: its record on foreign affairs is arguably more pacifistic than that of the US.

33

abb1 09.23.07 at 9:36 am

For me, the tragedy of that war … is the way men on BOTH sides of that bloody conflict thought they were fighting for the cause of freedom. Read the letters!

Isn’t it aways the case, though? I mean if you’re not a mercenary, then it’s gotta be for “the cause of freedom” in one sense or another, or “for the future of civilization” or some other bullshit like that; what’s the alternative?

I mean, it would really be hard to whip them into militaristic frenzy by asking them to kill and die for the arms manufacturers and Texan oil magnates, wouldn’t it.

34

Bruce Baugh 09.23.07 at 9:38 am

So in Lord Acton’s reality none of this happened. Nor, presumably, is this true today, anymore than this was true two full years ago.

Over in reality as I get to observe it, the problem at this point isn’t the American public. A lot of my fellow Americans panicked and let themselves be intimidated into supporting vile actions justified as security and revenge. Americans do that depressingly often. But they often (though not always) recover. They did that in this case several years ago. But they have, in practical terms, nobody representing them in national politics, since the opposition party isn’t opposing and the adversarial media are spooning with their subjects under the bleachers. They face rigged voting and an entirely subservient elite culture which regards any opposition to continued warmaking as somewhere between silly and too dangerous to even be mentioned.

It may very well be that they have no options this side of the revolutionary. In any case, it’s certainly true – over here in this version of reality, at least – that all the usual avenues of effective protest have been blocked partially or completely.

35

hidari 09.23.07 at 9:45 am

‘I’mglad of your footnote re the Native Americans, John. The fact that the United States is just as much the product of a westwards imperial expansion as modern Russia is the product of an eastwards one.’

And let’s not forget that Hitler’s ‘drive to the East’ was inspired by the US’ ‘drive to the West’. As Hitler made clear in his second book’, US’ economic power derived from its ‘frontier mentality’ its annihilation of the ‘indigenous inhabitants’ (Hitler frequently referred to the Russians as Indians, and saw the SS as being the ‘cowboys’ of the 20th century: in his ‘Utopia’, the Russians were to be uprooted and moved to new ‘settlements’ based explicitly on Indian reservations.)

The point is that Hitler saw both Russia, Britain and the United States as being Empires. In Hitler’s own view, the only way he could possibly hope to compete, economically, with the ‘stranglehold’ these Empires had on natural resources was to develop a German Empire of his own.*

(Confusingly, Hitler also referred to the Russians as Indians in the sense of people from India: he saw his Russian colony as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the German Empire in the same way that India was the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire).

*Isn’t it funny that ‘Third Reich’ is never translated? But all it means is Third Empire. I think the idea that Hitler wanted a German Empire makes British people, especially, pretty uncomfortable: it implies that someone Hitler’s imperial dreams might have been qualitatively, but not quantitatively different from British imperial dreams. Which would clearly be an outrageousthing to say.

I will now invoke Godwin’s law against myself and remove myself from this discussion.

36

yabonn 09.23.07 at 9:53 am

I wonder how the world wars are described in the US history school books.

37

Tim Worstall 09.23.07 at 9:56 am

“This restraint didn’t extend to Native Americans.”

As above, nor Mexicans: 1848 wasn’t it?

38

Total 09.23.07 at 1:04 pm

and really, that description may well belong even to the 19th, as the only successful counter-insurgencies in the 20th century were those in Malaysia, in El Salvador, in Oman, and in the P.I., AFAIK

Everyone always forgets about Greece in the late 1940s.

Though your larger point is correct (that America has a much dicier record in war than Americans imagine) we should be careful to assume that this is odd for imperial powers. To just take two examples off the top of my head, both Imperial Rome and Imperial Britain lost quite a few wars in the process of empire. So that may be typical for empires, rather than unusual to the 20th/21st century.

39

Alex 09.23.07 at 2:11 pm

US forces had hardly ever been in retreat? Nonsense; Bataan, Kasserine Pass, the Bulge, Chosin Reservoir, the great retreat down Korea..

40

stuart 09.23.07 at 2:11 pm

Leaving motivations aside, the striking fact is that Thompson’s claim is pretty much the opposite of the truth.

Even if that was the case, isn’t his statement also likely to be unquestionally believed by his target audience, which would presumably be the point of saying it?

41

Total 09.23.07 at 3:15 pm

US forces had hardly ever been in retreat? Nonsense; Bataan, Kasserine Pass, the Bulge, Chosin Reservoir, the great retreat down Korea..

It’s a comparative. Are the examples you give substantially less than other countries, to the level of “hardly ever”? I don’t know, but you can dismiss it that simply.

42

mijnheer 09.23.07 at 5:49 pm

As Jean Lepley points out above, Canadians like to think “we” (colonists and Brits) won the War of 1812 — thanks in no small part to a woman later immortalized on boxes of chocolate:
http://www.niagaraparks.com/heritage/secordhistory.php

As for what would have happened if the American Revolution had failed, here’s the answer:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_in_For_Want_of_a_Nail

43

Jim Harrison 09.23.07 at 5:52 pm

A vote for the Republicans is a vote for war—a slogan both sides can use in the coming elections.

44

Toby 09.23.07 at 7:07 pm

1848. The Mexican War was the product of the USA’s “manifest destiny” to rule the North American continent. It deprived Mexico of two-thirds of its sovereign territory.

45

Backword Dave 09.23.07 at 8:26 pm

Mark Steyn, of all people wades in – in support of Canada’s claim here. But then Steyn writes for MacLean’s (apparently a Canadian business oriented publication similar to the Economist to the reality based community; part of the librul media conspiracy to the wingers).

46

Errol 09.23.07 at 8:51 pm

#40 As for what would have happened if the American Revolution had failed, here’s the answer:

Please, _an answer_.

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Tracy W 09.23.07 at 10:33 pm

But do you really think that the average Soviet soldier was out there fighting the Hun just for the sake of Comrade Stalin? Do you have any proof that the Red Army was any less motivated to battle Nazism than the Allies? Exactly the opposite is my reading.

I entirely agree that the Red Army was more motivated to battle Nazism than the Allies. This was due to two factors:
– the Nazis regarded the Slavs as sub-human and managed to totally turn the locals around from welcoming them as saviours from Stalin to hating them. Meanwhile the Nazis treated people they thought were “Aryan” somewhat better (one of my great-uncles spent most of WWII as a PoW in Germany, and seems to have come out of it better mentally than his brother who kept fighting right the way through).
– the Red Army was far more eager to shoot any of its soldiers who showed reluctance to fight than any army of the Allies.
A desire for liberty in any sense remotely recognisable to Fred Thompson doesn’t seem to have any part of it.

As others have noted, the Red Army was also quite willing to invade Finland and part of Poland. It’s hard to explain this as sacrifices made for liberty.

My history teacher at school when we covered the Russian Revolution and Stalinist Russia was married to a Ukrainian woman.

I entirely agree that the Russians and most of the rest of Eastern Europe were thoroughly rogered by the 20th century. But that is an entirely separate question as to whether they were dying for liberty. The 20 million Soviets who died may have made a massive improvement to my standard of living and liberty, but I doubt that was their intention or motivation at all. The Soviets started WWII by entering into a pact with the Nazis and by invading a couple of countries, only prepared to attack the Nazis when they were convinced that the Nazis were going to attack them, and were quite happy to force all of Eastern Europe to become satellite states to them. Their sacrifices for liberty were entirely inadvertent.

By the way, I find it weird for my statement to be called a tedious ideological sermon. It doesn’t seem that tedious as you roused yourself to attempt a refutation. It may have been ideological, but then I think that many other people share my view that a regime that commits genocide (see the Ukranian famine) and allies itself with the Nazis is a bad thing. And I don’t think my statement was any more of a sermon than the WaPo’s original statement or your reply.

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functional 09.23.07 at 10:45 pm

Yes, Thompson’s statement is extraordinarily dumb. But Quiggin is even dumber (because he should know better) to give this any credit: “As the WaPo points out, our Russian allies lost millions in WWII alone . . . .”

Yes, they lost millions, but it certainly wasn’t being done “for other people’s liberty.” Indeed, Stalin had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler for the first couple of years of the war, and only began to fight against Hitler when Hitler suddenly invaded Russia in Operation Barbarossa. His involvement was defensive; he certainly wasn’t out there nobly sacrificing Russian lives to preserve the freedom of Britain. And of course, at the end of the war, Stalin was able to leverage his position into enslaving the Eastern half of Europe under a system that was just as bad as Naziism.

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Total 09.23.07 at 11:54 pm

he Soviets started WWII by entering into a pact with the Nazis and by invading a couple of countries, only prepared to attack the Nazis when they were convinced that the Nazis were going to attack them,

Oy vey. The point other people are trying to make to you is that the “Soviets” didn’t exist as a single, monolithic block. Stalin and his henchman were surely not fighting for liberty and they certainly did sign a treaty with the Nazis, but the ordinary Russian (and Georgian, and Ukranian and so on) were likely fighting to save themselves and destroy Naziism.

And you know what? Given, as other people have pointed out that the Soviets (and the French in World War I, for that matter) lost enormously more lives fighting the Germans maybe we should be respectful and shut the fuck up about how much blood-sacrifice the U.S. has made, and how all fired impressive that makes us. Modesty becomes a superpower.

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Manuel 09.24.07 at 12:57 am

I was under the impression that the popular support for the Iraq War ran something like this: we fight it over there, so we don’t have to fight it here. (I’m sure the Iraqi people find it very flattering that we shoved them in front of the Al Qaeda bus to save our own lives.) This seems awfully different from the “we’re doing this for other people’s freedom” argument, since the first line of reasoning pretty much denies any concern for the well-being of Iraqis. I wonder if any Republicans care to resolve the apparent contradictions here?

51

Russ 09.24.07 at 1:32 am

What the old hound dog actor/lobbiest thinks is very insignificant, he only has a 22% approval amongst republicans. The guy above who thinks 70-90% of Americans want war is sadly out of touch.

52

ed_finnerty 09.24.07 at 1:33 am

The whole framing as US versus USSR is of course ridiculous, and only serves the fringe. You only need to compare the US to the UK (which I think the fringiest fringer would agree is “fighting for freedom”) to see who has spilled more blood.

God – what a country you ill-informed, over armed idiots have

53

Russ 09.24.07 at 1:55 am

ed_

The remark was made by an old nobody and doesn’t sound any more ill-informed than tony B, of Ward Churchill.

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abb1 09.24.07 at 7:49 am

@27: Germany’s big push for Moscow was thrown back and failed a few days before any substantive Lend Lease aid reached the front. At that point, the Germans could not win against the Soviets; “all” the USSR had to do was to keep fighting and they would win through attrition.

Hmm, indeed the blitzkrieg failed in the winter of 1941, but I got the impression that until the 1943 Kursk-Orel battle it wasn’t at all clear that the Germans couldn’t win; and, actually, I suspect that the lend-lease played an important role. Not that any of this, of course, has anything to do with any “shedding blood for liberty”, whatever it means.

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Keir 09.24.07 at 8:15 am

Russ, he’s one of the ten or so people most likely to become the next President. That’s not nobody.

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magistra 09.24.07 at 8:58 am

What is depressing is that it’s only because the comment is so quantifiably over the top that anyone has noticed. I think all the presidential candidates (Democratic or Republican) are prone to say things along the line of the US always fighting for liberty or always standing for freedom, or being the hope of the world. This American self-idolisation is standard political language, despite it being inaccurate if not actively untrue.

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stuart 09.24.07 at 11:02 am

Russ, he’s one of the ten or so people most likely to become the next President. That’s not nobody.

I hope that means he has switched to being a Democratic candidate and I missed it. If there is Republican that is one of the top ten most likely to be the next president then that speaks very poorly of the american voters.

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franck 09.24.07 at 1:43 pm

total,

the problem with this attitude of course, is that a large number of people in that war actually were fighting for freedom, like the Poles or the Ethiopians. Even the Finns and the Baltic states have a case. Especially for the Poles, the individual soldiers of the Red Army were emphatically not fighting for freedom at all.

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Tracy W 09.24.07 at 2:29 pm

Total – I’m NZ, not American. Whatever reasons there are for me to be modest they can have nothing to with deportment becoming to the citizens of a superpower. NZers believe we are all-fired impressive because of the All Blacks, Edmund Hillary and winning the America’s Cup.

I entirely agree that the soldiers in Stalinist Russia were not one and the same with Stalin. But no one has produced any evidence that Russian soldiers were, as individuals, motivated to fight for liberty in the American sense. Meanwhile I have presented the following counter-evidence:
– the Red Army invaded Finland and Poland as per orders, which were hardly acts of liberation.
– many of the locals in the areas invaded by Germany originally welcomed the Nazis as liberators until the Nazis, who regarded the Slavs as sub-human managed to commit enough atrocities to convince them otherwise.
– the enthusiasm and courage of the Red Army soldiers is amply explained by the brutality of the Nazis and the Red Army political commissionars.

You can add to this that the propaganda Stalin used was that Russians should fight for Mother Russia.

Of course I cannot prove that no individual soldier in the Red Army in WWII ever was motivated by a desire to liberate other countries in a sense of “liberate” that would be used by Fred Thompson. Absence of evidence is of course not evidence of absence. But from what I know about the behaviour of Stalin and of individual soldiers in the Red Army, there’s no support for the idea that they were sacrificing their lives for others liberty in any sense but the inadvertent. To claim 20 million Soviet lives as sacrifices for liberty is an extraordinary claim, and extraordinay claims require extraordinary evidence. Which the WaPo did not provide.

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Matt Kuzma 09.24.07 at 3:26 pm

Do we get points docked for when we shed blood to take liberty away from people? Like, say, when we toppled the democratic government of Argentina and put a despotic dictator in its place. All those puppet goverments that “lend stability to the region” also curtail the freedom of others. As the Ganji letter illuminates, American efforts in most of the world only serve to facilitate oppression.

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Total 09.24.07 at 3:29 pm

the problem with this attitude of course, is that a large number of people in that war actually were fighting for freedom, like the Poles or the Ethiopians. Even the Finns and the Baltic states have a case. Especially for the Poles, the individual soldiers of the Red Army were emphatically not fighting for freedom at all.

Really? You’ve interviewed all those individual Soviet soldiers and found out that they were fighting to conquer and pillage?

As for the Poles, we should remember that the Polish government happily took a chunk of Czechoslovakia during the Munich Crisis when the Czechs were vulnerable. We should also remember that a fair number of Jews who survived the concentration camps were later killed by the Polish when they returned home to try and reclaim their property.

Of course I cannot prove that no individual soldier in the Red Army in WWII ever was motivated by a desire to liberate other countries in a sense of “liberate” that would be used by Fred Thompson. Absence of evidence is of course not evidence of absence. But from what I know about the behaviour of Stalin and of individual soldiers in the Red Army, there’s no support for the idea that they were sacrificing their lives for others liberty in any sense but the inadvertent. To claim 20 million Soviet lives as sacrifices for liberty is an extraordinary claim, and extraordinay claims require extraordinary evidence. Which the WaPo did not provide.

It’s exactly this kind of parsing that makes the entire situation ridiculous. Shall we now argue what percentage of Soviet soldiers *were* fighting for liberty? How about 10%? What percentage of American soldiers were fighting for liberty (rather than because they were drafted and ordered to go)? 40%? Shall we work our way through all the combatants in modern military history to find out who’s ahead? How about per capita moral superiority? Moral superiority by percentage of military-age males killed?

Ridiculous? Yes, I would think so. But that’s exactly what Thompson’s remark leads us to. Your death (pointing at one corpse) counts as a death for liberty; yours (pointing at another) doesn’t. My 400,000 dead are more virtuous than your 20 million killed or (insert numbers here for the British or French in WWI).

What a remarkable fellow Fred Thompson is, to be able to weigh the value of the dead. He can tell us which gravestones to mark and preserve and which to let decay.

And modesty becomes everyone, not just superpowers.

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abb1 09.24.07 at 3:36 pm

Actually, if I am not mistaken, the Red Army (led by Leon Trotsky) did try to liberate Poland in 1919, but the Pols managed to defeat them and lived un-liberated until 1939.

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Tim Worstall 09.24.07 at 3:43 pm

# 60.

“Like, say, when we toppled the democratic government of Argentina and put a despotic dictator in its place.”

It helps to get the right Latin American country in these sorts of discussions. Unless you’re suggesting that Peron or Galtieri were put in power by the Americans?

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Glorious Godfrey 09.24.07 at 3:49 pm

That’s what we need Lord Acton: besides-the-point middle-finger waving!

On the contrary: L.A. cuts through all the pious humbug to reach the true meat of the topic.

The Serious People in the Foreign Policy establishment are presumably keen on war-making in order to keep the party going for as long as possible. The monstrous “defense” establishment and its new-fangled “homeland security” counterpart are some serious punch bowls, after all. The rank-and-file wingnuts OTOH are healthier folk: they just like to flaunt the size of their dicks on the internets! !

Obviously, American hegemony will not survive the next four decades or so, and that’s a conservative estimate. No need to elaborate much on that (the rise of China and India, the increasing difficulty of getting political dividends out of the ability to blow shit up, etc. etc.).

Obviously, the likes of L.A. know. Hence the hambone displays of swagger.

I’m reminded of this thread, where, in the process of acting the dick as “Public Spirit”, I brought up the spurious de Tocqueville quote about America’s goodness being a necessary (but not necessarily sufficient) condition for American greatness. As long as they feel America enjoys an exalted status, the petty cheerleaders will read greatness into it, and find it easy to advance all sort of justifications for the nation’s exceptional goodness.

That’s all Thompson is doing, really.

American jingoism is not fundamentally different from other forms of chauvinism: it’s predicated on: a) delusions of grandeur; b) fear and paranoia; c) self-righteousness. The true chauvinist displays, in a somewhat bipolar manner, generous amounts of both a) and b). c) is for the most part an accessory to a).

In short, these folks are all about might making right, after all is said and done. So you just tell them that they are not quite so mighty as they pretend to be.

The pious humbug, the historical-revisionism-cum-retroactive-arse-covering is just propaganda. You don’t engage propagandists, because you’re implicitly treating them like serious people. You counter with propaganda of your own.

In fact, I find it mildly puzzling that folks are wasting 60-odd thread comments on such a transparent issue. Jingoists are often surprisingly tame when laughed at, so I don’t see why it shouldn’t be done at every turn. They are as already stated pretty scared of the world, and even more of people who are less fearful than them. Fear engenders anger, anger engenders hatred of libruls, young padawan, and all that. It’s all covered in Psychology of Subnormality 101 courses, really.

The only not entirely obvious thing that occurs to me on the matter is that I agree with the notion that it is misleading to try to compare American attitudes to the much-touted “European experience” after the world wars. If one is really at a loss for cheapo historical analogies, I’d mention France throughout the XIXth century and until WWI. Since Louis XIV, France’s bids for ever-elusive hegemony led to wars that were for the most part waged on the home soil of other Europeans. The loss of France’s pre-eminence after 1815 somehow did fail to register among the more patriotically minded, which led to Second Empires, Sedans, revanchismes and all that.

In short, there’s no reason to expect the military industrial thingie to collapse under its own weight any time soon.

P.S: That thread was fucking great, hahahahaha. Thanks to bi’s intercession, I got to say that “the Smurfs are no rugged individualists”. Life is made of little things, indeed.

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Glorious Godfrey 09.24.07 at 4:01 pm

By “comparing American attitudes to the much-touted ‘European experience’ after the world wars” what is meant is “expecting Vietnam and Iraq to lead to a convergence of views and policies between the US and Europe”, obvs.

The French analogy is also shite, though. I’d wager on a revival of isolationism, without an attendant significant rollback of the military for the odd pair of decades or two.

Historical analogies are not worth the trouble.

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franck 09.24.07 at 4:23 pm

total,

Then what were those Soviet soldiers doing in Poland, then? How precisely does one protect the Soviet Union by killing Poles who are no real military threat? Poland had not invaded or threatened the Soviet Union. (In fact, as abb1 mentions, in 1919 it was the other way around.) The only way to interpret the Soviet actions in Poland, the Baltic states, and Finland is as a war of aggression.

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Total 09.24.07 at 4:30 pm

Then what were those Soviet soldiers doing in Poland, then? How precisely does one protect the Soviet Union by killing Poles who are no real military threat? Poland had not invaded or threatened the Soviet Union. (In fact, as abb1 mentions, in 1919 it was the other way around.) The only way to interpret the Soviet actions in Poland, the Baltic states, and Finland is as a war of aggression.

(Bangs head slowly on desk)

Aside from the obvious point that the Soviet Army that invaded Poland in 1939 was substantially smaller than the one that defeated the Germans from 41-45, thus proving my point about conflating everyone together into one big block of “Soviets” and acting as if they all similar motivations, how about if I simply repeat the last part of my earlier post, in the optimistic hope that the point will sink in?

“It’s exactly this kind of parsing that makes the entire situation ridiculous. Shall we now argue what percentage of Soviet soldiers were fighting for liberty? How about 10%? What percentage of American soldiers were fighting for liberty (rather than because they were drafted and ordered to go)? 40%? Shall we work our way through all the combatants in modern military history to find out who’s ahead? How about per capita moral superiority? Moral superiority by percentage of military-age males killed?

Ridiculous? Yes, I would think so. But that’s exactly what Thompson’s remark leads us to. Your death (pointing at one corpse) counts as a death for liberty; yours (pointing at another) doesn’t. My 400,000 dead are more virtuous than your 20 million killed or (insert numbers here for the British or French in WWI).

What a remarkable fellow Fred Thompson is, to be able to weigh the value of the dead. He can tell us which gravestones to mark and preserve and which to let decay.”

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Borealis 09.24.07 at 6:08 pm

This blog is really deteriorating into Bush Derangement Syndrome. It used to have intelligent discussions when it criticized Bush, now it is pretty much Republicans=Hitler.

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abb1 09.24.07 at 6:10 pm

Then what were those Soviet soldiers doing in Poland, then?

Why, they were liberating Poland, no question about that. From the multi-headed hydra of capitalism, of course. Read this book.

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robd 09.24.07 at 6:41 pm

Soviet soldiers in Poland were being forward defence for the homeland.
Russia/the SU had been invaded several times before from the west.

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tydanosaurus 09.24.07 at 10:40 pm

But no one has produced any evidence that Russian soldiers were, as individuals, motivated to fight for liberty in the American sense.

IIRC, we entered WWII to fight Japan. The marines at Okinawa don’t talk about freeing those poor Philipinos or Chinese from the Jap Aggressors. We threw in against the Germans because they were bad and naugty people, true, but they were bad for years and we basically ignored them.

In any event, talking about what the “individuals” wanted as they fought is a little silly. The point is that millions of Russions died in WWII and without their sacrifice England is busy erecting monuments to Hitler. If that isn’t “shed[ding] blood” for other peoples’ freedom, what is?

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tydanosaurus 09.24.07 at 10:40 pm

Heck, Russians even.

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abb1 09.25.07 at 6:58 am

If that isn’t “shed[ding] blood” for other peoples’ freedom, what is?

Well, apparently it’s extremely important that the individual blood-shedders are slobbering infantile idiots, similar to Mr. Thompson’s audience.

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Valuethinker 09.25.07 at 7:18 am

The US has always had a penchant for war.

Think Mexican-American war, Spanish-American war. All of the ‘Indian Wars’ which Americans undoubtedly didn’t see as ‘internal’ wars, but wars against an external enemy. 1812 anyone?

The American Civil War was strikingly erased from memory, for a long time. Perhaps because of the bitterness of the Reconstruction. But something like 5% of the adult male population of the US was killed or wounded. You are getting towards France 1914-18 at those casualty levels.

I’m not sure it slated the American appetite for blood. But then, looking at the crowds in London, Paris, Munich in 1914, there was a lust for blood there, too.

The big difference is by and large the campaigning doesn’t take place on American soil, so Americans have been insulated from the more malign consequences of war. War is something of a Hollywood-ised abstraction to Americans. The reality of war to Americans is Black Hawk Down, and Fox News.

Europe it’s all just a little too recent and painful: the graveyards here list the fallen from both wars, often amounting to most of the men of the village, and then France and Britain have Korea, Algeria, Indochina, Malaya etc. to remember.

I am amazed at the inability of some commentators to distinguish between Comrade Stalin and his political objectives, and what motivated the average Soviet combat soldier.

Stalin put it best ‘The Americans brought the materials, the British bought time, the Russians brought blood’. WWII was won by the talent of the Soviet generals, and the sheer doggedness and courage of Ivan, the Russian (and latterly central Asian Soviet) soldier.

As one German officer noted of his opponents in his diary ‘they seem to have a lust for battle, to close with our forces’.

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Tracy W 09.25.07 at 8:16 am

In any event, talking about what the “individuals” wanted as they fought is a little silly. The point is that millions of Russions died in WWII and without their sacrifice England is busy erecting monuments to Hitler. If that isn’t “shed[ding] blood” for other peoples’ freedom, what is?

Well this is completely off the top of my head, but when it comes to “shedding blood for other peoples’ freedom” I’d count something like restoring democracy in the countries you kicked the Nazis/Japanese out of. With a bit more thought I might be able to add more actions to the list.

I don’t get this. I point out that the leader of the Soviet Union, Stalin, showed absolutely no signs of fighting for liberty and people tell me that I’m lumping together the motivations of all of the millions of Russians with the motivations of the leaders. I talk about the motivations of the millions of individual Russians and I’m told that talking about the motives of individuals is silly. I mean, talk about a circle immune to evidence here.

No one has produced any evidence that the Russians were fighting for liberty at either a national or an individual level. I agree that Fred Thompson’s argument was silly. But the WaPo counting the Russian dead as casulties for liberty is sillier, and it’s ridiculous that they would say that in an article criticising Fred Thompson.

IIRC, we entered WWII to fight Japan.

Speak for yourself. NZ entered WWII because “Where Britain goes, we go. Where Britain stands, we stand”.

The marines at Okinawa don’t talk about freeing those poor Philipinos or Chinese from the Jap Aggressors. We threw in against the Germans because they were bad and naugty people, true, but they were bad for years and we basically ignored them.

Because after WWI most Americans didn’t want to get involved in another European war because war is bad. The American people were weighing one evil against another and picking not fighting. In the end it turned out that they made the wrong decision, but unless you can provide some evidence that Americans were equipped with amazing superpowers to see into the future I find it hard to be rather tough on American isolationism of the time. WWI was very bad.

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abb1 09.25.07 at 10:20 am

…when it comes to “shedding blood for other peoples’ freedom” I’d count something like restoring democracy in the countries you kicked the Nazis/Japanese out of.

It wasn’t so much “restoring democracy” as it was installing capitalism; for example in Korea (military dictatorship) and Japan (one-party-rule political system). What you want to say here is that you don’t count ‘freedom from capitalism’ as ‘freedom’.

Which is fair enough, though it wasn’t at all clear back then: the “Free World” rhetoric wasn’t invented yet at the time; it was devised later, during the Cold War.

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Tracy W 09.25.07 at 11:02 am

Abb1 – when did the Russians install capitalism in South Korea or Japan?

As far as I know the Russians weren’t really involved in the Asian theatre of WWII. All the fighting against the Japanese was done by the Chinese, the Americans, the Australians, the Phillipines, and presuambly a lot of other local people in the countries Japan invaded or tried to invade. I presume the Russians guarded their Asian borders right throughout that time, but if they kicked the Japanese out of any countries during WWII like they did the Nazis then all I can say is that it’s been kept one hell of a secret.

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Total 09.25.07 at 11:42 am

I don’t get this. I point out that the leader of the Soviet Union, Stalin, showed absolutely no signs of fighting for liberty and people tell me that I’m lumping together the motivations of all of the millions of Russians with the motivations of the leaders

You surely didn’t start off talking about “Stalin” not fighting for liberty, you simply said “Soviets”, lumping together everyone involved in fighting the Germans on the Eastern Front. The larger point that emerges from this is that trying to ascribe a single set of motivations to any group of historical actors is deeply silly. It leads to a discussion in which, from the safe comfort of the Internet, we try to parse who had a “worthy” death (because they were fighting for liberty) and who had a “unworthy” death (because they weren’t. That discussion is not only silly but repellent.

The American people were weighing one evil against another and picking not fighting.

See above.

As far as I know the Russians weren’t really involved in the Asian theatre of WWII. All the fighting against the Japanese was done by the Chinese, the Americans, the Australians, the Phillipines, and presuambly a lot of other local people in the countries Japan invaded or tried to invade

Though largely true, the veterans of the 1939 Battle of Khalkin Gol, and the 1945 Battle of Manchuria would be surprised by the word “all.”

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Tracy W 09.25.07 at 12:54 pm

You surely didn’t start off talking about “Stalin” not fighting for liberty, you simply said “Soviets”, lumping together everyone involved in fighting the Germans on the Eastern Front.

See comment 11. This was my first comment on this post and I mentioned Stalin specifically.

I lumped everyone in Russia together because of the Great Terror in Russia in the 1930s, whereby Stalin managed to consolidate his position so thoroughly that the Russians didn’t overthrow him even when the Nazi invasion showed that he had made one of the largest (and possibly the largest) set of military blunders in human history.

The larger point that emerges from this is that trying to ascribe a single set of motivations to any group of historical actors is deeply silly.

In the case of Russia from the 1930s until Stalin’s death it strikes me as entirely sensible. The country was being run by one man in a grip of steel.

. It leads to a discussion in which, from the safe comfort of the Internet, we try to parse who had a “worthy” death (because they were fighting for liberty) and who had a “unworthy” death (because they weren’t. That discussion is not only silly but repellent.

Good thing that we aren’t having that discussion then, isn’t it?

What’s repellent is that the WaPo criticises Fred Thompson’s ignorance of history while displaying a far greater ignorance of its own.
Stalin’s regime in Russia shows the depths of evil to which humanity can sink. I think it is vitally important that this knowledge is generally known. Facism is not the only evil we have to guard against.

On the whole I do think that the Russians who were killed fighting the Nazis in WWII had a worthy death, as the Gestapo’s plans for Eastern Europe were even worse than Stalin’s. Sadly, the ones who were shot by their own army for various political crimes had tragic, pointless deaths. And the only way we can make those deaths more worthwhile is by reducing the chances of it ever happening again, which is why the WaPo’s argument annoys me so much.

That said, the worthiness or otherwise of deaths in battle is a different matter from whether the Russians were fighting for liberty.

Thanks for the information about Khalkin Gol and Manchuria. I hadn’t heard of those battles at all which is a shame. The coverage of the Asian theatre of the world in NZ history is pretty biased – obviously we covered Chinese involvement in studying Mao Zedong’s Communist revolution, but the rest of NZ history accounts are focussed on NZ and Australian experiences and the American decision to use the nuclear bomb on Japan.

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stostosto 09.25.07 at 1:10 pm

John Q says:

The problem now is that most people in Europe and elsewhere have learned from experience that war is always bad, and usually worse than even bad alternatives, but many Americans have not.

While intuitively this seems right — there really is a huge post-Atlantic difference in popular attitudes to war — it’s not easy to reconcile with post-WWII episodes like the wars that the French waged in Algeria and Vietnam, Britain in Kenya, and the Suez debacle of 1956.

My feeling is the European anti-war sentiment, such as it is, dates from a later point which I’d put somewhere around 1968 and the demonstrations against the Vietnam war (after the Americans had took it over from the French).

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stostosto 09.25.07 at 1:11 pm

for “post-Atlantic” substitute “trans-Atlantic”. (What does post-Atlantic even mean?)

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Total 09.25.07 at 3:27 pm

See comment 11. This was my first comment on this post and I mentioned Stalin specifically.

And you then went and:

lumped everyone in Russia together because of the Great Terror in Russia in the 1930s, whereby Stalin managed to consolidate his position so thoroughly that the Russians didn’t overthrow him even when the Nazi invasion showed that he had made one of the largest (and possibly the largest) set of military blunders in human history.

Let’s extend the logic of your argument all the way. By 1945, the Soviets were drafting 16 year olds (and younger, but we’ll stick with that). So because a 12 year (in 1941) didn’t rise up against Stalin, he is complicit in Stalin’s aggression? It’s that sort of silliness that has arisen from parsing who was “worthy” and who was not.

Good thing that we aren’t having that discussion then, isn’t it?

We are having exactly that discussion. That’s what I’ve been trying to point out.

On the whole I do think that the Russians who were killed fighting the Nazis in WWII had a worthy death, as the Gestapo’s plans for Eastern Europe were even worse than Stalin’s.

See, we are having that discussion, comfortably passing judgment on millions of dead people. I’m sure that they’ll be glad to know that you approved of their deaths.

That said, the worthiness or otherwise of deaths in battle is a different matter from whether the Russians were fighting for liberty.

No, it isn’t. It’s integral to the discussion. You can’t assert that America is morally superior because our soldiers died for liberty and (insert country here) didn’t, without saying that the former are worthy and the latter aren’t.

And that’s what Thompson was trying to do. He can’t assert that more Americans died fighting wars, because it isn’t remotely true. So he has to identify those deaths as uniquely virtuous in a way that makes America uniquely virtuous. “You may have lost 20 million people, but the United States is superior because you did not do it for the right reasons.”

You apparently feel comfortable saying that; I do not.

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Tracy W 09.25.07 at 4:53 pm

So because a 12 year (in 1941) didn’t rise up against Stalin, he is complicit in Stalin’s aggression?

Dear Total. I have not argued that Russian soldiers were complicit in Stalin’s aggression. I think you have misunderstood my argument. I lumped the Russians together because Stalin had a very tight level of control – either you did what he wanted or you got shot (and if you failed because he gave you an impossible order you got shot). So if Stalin wanted to pursue an aggressive policy then the Red Army pursued an agressive policy. If Stalin wanted to throw the Eastern European countries he conquered under his dictatorship then the Red Army threw those Eastern European countries under that dictatorship. Those who didn’t died. The average Russian wasn’t complicit – they were in a situation where if they disobeyed they died. That’s why I think Stalin’s intentions were the intentions of the country.

You have shown no evidence that Russian soldiers, as individuals or their leadership, gave a fig about liberating other countries. This does not surprise me. If I was a Russian in the time of WWII (soldier or not) my main objective would be surviving both the Nazis and my own government. It was an entirely ghastly time and place in world history and I am eternally grateful that none of my family was anywhere near it.

Let’s turn it around. Do you really believe that a Russian solider of age 16 gave a fig about the liberty of Americans and Western Europeans? In that situation, would you care?

comfortably passing judgment on millions of dead people.

I have never felt comfortable about the suffering of the Russians and Eastern Europeans in the 1930s and WWII. If you had ever heard my history teacher speak about his Ukrainian in-laws experiences you would not feel comfortable either. It was an incredibly terrible time in human history and I really think you should study it at least a little.

I’m sure that they’ll be glad to know that you approved of their deaths.

They’re dead. They can’t be glad about anything. It doesn’t matter to them what I think about their deaths. That’s the tragic thing about death.

You can’t assert that America is morally superior because our soldiers died for liberty

I have not asserted that America is morally superior. And what’s with this word “our”? I’m not American, as I keep telling you.

My arguments that Stalin was an evil person and he created an evil system are completely independent of any arguments about American crimes. I don’t understand why you keep going on about Americans when I criticise Stalinist Russia. Do you think that for every crime the Americans committed a thousand victims of Stalin will spring back to life? That there’s a limited amount of evil in the world so that the worse Americans were in the 1930s and 1940s the better the Russian communists were? Sadly, that’s not true. There was an incredible amount of death and suffering and cruelty around in the 1930s and 40s. Once you’ve learnt a bit about what happened in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s, I suggest you take up studying what the Japanese did to the Chinese.

Nor have I defended Thompson’s accusation. My argument is that the WaPo’s article implying that it thought that Russian soliders were dying for liberty is so mind-blindingly ignorant of history that it is ridiculous that it accuses Thompson of ignorance. Thompson can be wrong and the WaPo even wronger.

And can you please provide some reasoning for your statement that the worthiness of the deaths of Russians is integral to the discussion whether they were dying for liberty? You assert this and then go off into a non-sequitor about Americans dying for liberty and what that meant for the worthiness of other countries.

Can you please argue with me and not with some figment of your imagination? I am not American. You appear to be supplying my side of your argument from some stereotype in your head.

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Total 09.25.07 at 6:36 pm

I have not argued that Russian soldiers were complicit in Stalin’s aggression.

Uh, yes you have. You specifically criticized the Russians for not overthrowing Stalin in 1941 after the Nazi invasion.

ou have shown no evidence that Russian soldiers, as individuals or their leadership, gave a fig about liberating other countries.

Let’s be clear on the argument here. You asserted that all the Soviets shared Stalin’s lack of interest in liberation. You provided no evidence for this assertion except assumptions about how people must have acted in the Stalinist police state. The burden of actual evidence started, and remains with you. What actual evidence do you have that *no* Soviet soldier was interested in liberation?

Let’s turn it around. Do you really believe that a Russian solider of age 16 gave a fig about the liberty of Americans and Western Europeans? In that situation, would you care

This is a perfect example of the above. “Do you really believe” is not actually evidence, it is “I’m going to apply my own world view to a historical situation and assume it’s right.” I’m not a 16 year old Russian soldier and so I don’t _know_ what their motivations were. Neither do you, and it would behoove you to look for actual evidence as opposed to your presuppositions.

It was an incredibly terrible time in human history and I really think you should study it at least a little.

and

Once you’ve learnt a bit about what happened in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s, I suggest you take up studying what the Japanese did to the Chinese.

I was trying to come up with a level of sarcasm sufficient for the infantile patronization of the above paragraphs, but I proved unable to manage it. So, I’ll just say that on my father’s side the branch of the family that had remained in Poland when his grandfather came over was wiped out in the Holocaust, the 50+ of them survived only by a great aunt (who once cried when my father came to visit because he was driving a Volkswagen). I will also mention, as a second note, that I have a Ph.D in military history, specializing in the two world wars, with a minor field in Russian history, and that I have a pretty good idea how the Stalinist system worked, and what the Japanese did to the Chinese.

You should be careful about assuming that those who disagree with you, either 1) don’t understand your argument, and/or 2) know less than you do. It would help you avoid playing the fool.

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SG 09.26.07 at 7:41 am

tracy w, what makes you think the Russians fighting against the Nazis believed their own country did not represent freedom? My memory of the letters and opinions reproduced in Stalingrad, and what little else I have seen of Soviet nationalism, certainly makes me think they believed they were fighting for freedom. Remember, a lot of Soviets actually believed in the march of freedom through socialism, etc. And those who didn’t probably equated “freedom” with “national liberation”. It doesn’t seem controversial to me to count those deaths as deaths for freedom.

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Tracy W 09.26.07 at 7:42 am

You specifically criticized the Russians for not overthrowing Stalin in 1941 after the Nazi invasion.

No I didn’t. I said one of the reasons I believed the Russians were cowed by Stalin was that they didn’t overthrow him after the Nazi invasion showed what a military incompetent was.

Had I been through what the Russians had been through in the Great Terror I’d have acted like them.

You appear to be arguing with someone inside your head. I cite evidence that the Russians were too cowed to oppose Stalin, and you turn it into some sort of moral criticism of Russians. Please don’t. Making arguments against strawmen is never going to convince me that my arguments are wrong.

Neither do you, and it would behoove you to look for actual evidence as opposed to your presuppositions.

Sigh. That’s why I’ve been citing evidence right the way through.
– The lack of any opposition by the Red Army to Stalin’s aggressive plans.
– The use by the Red Army of political commmissionars to stop their troops running away.
– That the Soviets had just come through the Great Terror, where anyone who disagreed with Stalin was shot.
– How the locals initially welcomed the Nazi invasion (until the Nazis, by dint of various atrocities, managed to convince the locals that they were even worse than the Communists).

This is why I don’t believe that the Red Army was fighting for liberty.

Meanwhile you have supplied zero evidence that any individual Russian was fighting for liberty.

Total – if your family suffered so terribly in WWII and you have a pretty good idea of how the Russian system under Stalin worked, how can you discuss so comfortably the worthiness or not of millions of Russian dead in WWII? That was why I thought you knew less than me about WWII, when you started talking about comfortably discussing the worthiness of people’s deaths.

And by the way, obviously I don’t think that I’m playing the fool. Ad hominems never change your opponent’s mind. I suggest avoiding them in the future.

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Danny Yee 09.27.07 at 7:49 am

tracy w rhetoricised:
Do you really believe that a Russian solider of age 16 gave a fig about the liberty of Americans and Western Europeans?

Do you really believe that most US soliders of 16 gave a fig about the liberty of Russians and Eastern Europeans?

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