What perfect timing that David Bell’s thorough dismantling of World War Two analogizing should appear on the same day as Jim VandeHei’s obtuse call for a centrist third-party demagogue (really!) to run for president. Nestled among the platitudes, a staple of the No Labels-style op-ed, is this alarming advice for VandeHei’s dream candidate:
Exploit the fear factor. The candidate should be from the military or immediately announce someone with modern-warfare expertise or experience as running mate. People are scared. Terrorism is today’s World War and Americans want a theory for dealing with it. President Obama has established an intriguing precedent of using drone technology and intelligence to assassinate terrorists before they strike. A third-party candidate could build on death-by-drones by outlying the type of modern weapons, troops and war powers needed to keep America safe. And make plain when he or she will use said power. Do it with very muscular language—there is no market for nuance in the terror debate.
Generally speaking, the easiest way to respond graciously to egregiously bad arguments is to assume that a writer simply doesn’t know better, and might think differently if they had more information or more time to reflect. When it comes to World War Two comparisons, this means wishing that a writer had a greater storehouse of historical analogies, so that not everything looked like Munich and Hitler. But this is something altogether different: an avowed intention to turn off the brain (“Exploit the fear factor”; “there is no market for nuance”) and promote historical illiteracy (“Terrorism is today’s World War”).
Fortunately, Bell’s piece in The National Interest provides a timely, and apparently badly-needed, corrective to VandeHei’s piece in The Wall Street Journal. Bell begins by emphasizing the singular experience that was the Second World War —“a spasm of violence and cruelty whose magnitude remains almost impossible to grasp.” It is precisely the fact that nothing like WW2 has since happened that cements its preeminence as a source of historical analogies: no other event supplies leaders who so easily reside in the public imagination as heroes and villains, or actions so widely coded as good and evil. Plus, as Bell wryly notes, “The commentators who invoke Hitler or Munich never seem to appreciate the massive irony that the events of the war itself—and above all its nuclear ending—ensured that the events of 1939 to 1945 could never, in fact, come close to repeating themselves.”
For that reason, the war tempts us to make unhelpful comparisons—ones that cause us to misconstrue complex problems, overestimate enemies, and respond more belligerently than we should. As Bell shows, none of the U.S.’s chief rivals or antagonists today is relevantly similar to the Axis powers. Not China, not Russia, not Iran, not ISIS. But the failure of historical comparison goes even deeper than that: our world not only doesn’t provide clear analogues to Hitler or Churchill; it doesn’t even map onto the kind of war they fought or the kind of peace that was won in 1945. We need, Bell writes, “new words that more precisely describe the sort of conflicts and challenges the United States faces in the world.”
This advice is attractive in its democratic confidence—its optimism that Americans are capable of understanding, and responding appropriately to, a set of geopolitical challenges that lack the existential immediacy and relative moral clarity suggested by comparisons to Hitler. For a contrast, consider VandeHei’s suggestion that fear—one of the most dangerous political emotions, an invitation to overreach, hastiness, and violence—be “exploited,” preferably by a candidate “from the military,” who will approach “today’s World War” with “muscular language” and without nuance.
Even ignoring the creepy authoritarian sentiments and cloying faux-populism (in Palinesque fashion, VandeHei brags about his time in “Normal America”), could anything be more contemptuous of the public? Since, per Bell, terrorism is not “today’s World War,” the most plausible reading of VandeHei’s comparison is that it refers to a comforting sense of righteousness that would justify black-and-white approaches to complex problems. (No surprise that he rejects nuance outright.) Whether this would actually advance America’s interests is at best a secondary concern to VandeHei, and he seems to assume that the same is true of the public. “Americans want a theory,” he says, and they can be convinced, with bovine pliability, of any feel-good story, no matter how stupid, as long as it offers easy fixes. Some people might think this view of the public is accurate and regard it as a reason for lament; VandeHei thinks it’s accurate and detects an exciting political opportunity.
Not everyone who deploys World War Two comparisons does so with such cynicism. But even when offered with purer motives, such comparisons still threaten to obscure more than they reveal. Without dismissing the horrors of our own time, we should nonetheless be thankful that they present so few close parallels. We should also hope for a public debate in which such comparisons feature only sparingly, and which doesn’t turn to them for dubious guidance. That kind of debate will only be possible if people come to understand that our world, as Bell writes, is not one in which “we could march off to a clearly defined war, win clearly defined battles and impose a clearly defined peace.” If public ignorance makes that kind of debate impossible, then we should try to correct it—not exploit it.