On Contact: WWII America’s historical myths
On the show this week, Chris Hedges discusses the historical myths about World War II with Danny Sjursen, Retired US Army Major, author and historian. Knowledge, or what the historian Howard Zinn called the knowledge industry, is a vital form of power. Yes, the ruling elite’s monopoly on force is a direct form of power, but just as important, as Zinn points out, is the ability to shape perceptions about our origins and identity, inculcating beliefs and narratives that legitimate and often glorify the centers of power.
The knowledge industry, which consists of universities, colleges, schools and the mass media, Zinn argues, is not primarily about truth but deception. Truth is dangerous. It implodes the myths and lies used to legitimate the status quo and the ruling elite’s monopoly on violence. Most knowledge, Zinn argues, is not directly bought. Rather, it serves the centers of power by perpetuating the dominant narrative or squandering itself in trivia or esoteric inquiry, which has little relevance to our lives and does almost nothing to illuminate our past or our present. Historians, seeking tenured positions, generous grants and academic prizes, understand that their careers are best advanced if they eschew the larger, transcendental truths in the name of objectivity or neutrality. And thus, the facts, which all ruling elites want hidden, remain in darkness. Most celebrated historians are little more than apologists for power.
Danny Sjursen’s new book is: A True History of the United States: Indigenous Genocide, Racialized Slavery, Hyper-Capitalism, Militarist Imperialism and Other Overlooked Aspects of American Exceptionalism.
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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact. Today, we discuss the myths, the historical myths, we tell ourselves, about ourselves with a historian, Danny Sjursen.
Danny Sjursen: There’s no doubt that the Nazi war machine was a massive threat, but the ramifications of the centralization of power in the executive branch, he literally has the Navy in a shooting war with the Nazi U-boats. He’s arming convoys against the law. He is basically secretly creating a fait accompli, where the United States is not only going to probably get involved in the war because of these actions, but it’s at--we’re actually in a shooting war. And when it comes to that, he even has a secret conference at Placentia Bay off the coast of Newfoundland, where he’s got all his chiefs of his military services and he meets Churchill secretly, no one knows anything about this, and they wrote a war plan for how they were going to collaborate together months before the war begins. There was an enormous centralization of executive power for war-making that we’re still seeing today.
CH: Knowledge, or what the historian Howard Zinn called the knowledge industry, is a vital form of power. Yes, the ruling elites monopoly on force is a direct form of power. But as important, as Ziin points out, is the ability to shape perceptions about our origins and identity, inculcating beliefs and narratives that legitimate, and often glorify, the centers of power. Knowledge industry, which is comprised of universities, colleges, schools, and the mass media, Zinn argues, is not primarily about truth, but deception. Truth is dangerous. It implodes the myths and lies used to legitimate the status quo and the ruling elites’ monopoly on violence. Most knowledge, Zinn argues, is not directly bought, rather it serves the centers of power by perpetrating the dominant narrative or squandering itself in trivia, or esoteric inquiry which has little relevance to our lives and does almost nothing to illuminate our past and our present. Historians seeking tenured positions, generous grants, and academic prizes understand that their careers are best advanced if they askew the larger transcendental truths in the name of objectivity or neutrality. And thus the facts, which all ruling elites want hidden, remain in darkness. Most celebrated historians are a little more than apologists for power. The historian Danny Sjursen, graduated from West Point, served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and returned to West Point to teach history in his new book, “The True History of the United States: Indigenous Genocide, Racialized Slavery, Hyper-Capitalism, Militarist Imperialism and Other Overlooked aspects of American Exceptionalism,” rights in the best tradition of Zinn. Fearlessly shining a light on our past, where we came from, and where--what we have become. In short, he tells the unvarnished truth from our origins to the present. Joining me to discuss his new book is Danny Sjursen. So Danny, the book is sweeping, I think it’s a great work. It just implodes myth after myth from the founding of the country to the present. And I’m going to focus this show primarily on the narrative of the good war, World War II. But just to begin, you write most cadets entered West Point haven’t been taught and thus understanding a rather flimsy brand of US history. These otherwise gifted students understanding of the American past, lacked substance or depth, and pivoted on patriotic platitudes, such young men and women hardly knew the history of the country they had volunteered to kill and die for, that I thought to myself is how military fiascos are made. Before we go into the discussion of that chapter, that phrase, military fiascos are made, explain the consequences of not understanding our own history and our own past.
DS: Well, thanks for having me, Chris. And thanks for asking that. I think it would surprise a lot of folks to know that basically what’s in this book is the basic framework of the lectures that I was giving and the discussions we were having in class at West Point, right? Which is often thought of as sort of, you know, just a military officer factory. It is that, but it also has its serious academic components. I think it became clear to me through the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan, both tactile and study, that these were wars that were built, sold, even thought of by folks who didn’t have a single shred of understanding of certainly Middle Eastern history or greater Middle Eastern history but really not even their own countries, didn’t understand that we have a track record of fighting mostly wars built on lies, wars built on aggression. We’ve done regime change wars before, and they were often sold on false pretenses. It just seemed obscene to have these cadets, by the way, who have now--my students have all graduated and I’d say about 50% of them have been in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan or other combat zones. I wasn’t going to tell any lies. I wanted them to know the truths of what was going on, or at least analyze and grapple with those troops--those troops and kind of, like, weigh them. And that seemed the right thing to do. And I’m surprised [INDISTINCT] instructors were doing that.
CH: I want to talk now about chapter 26. Just how good was the good war? And you quote a former US Army Lieutenant Paul Fussell who wrote “Wartime: Understanding Behavior in the Second World War,” also wrote that classic book on the First World War. “For the past 50 years, the allied war has been sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant, and the bloodthirsty.” So let’s dissect the myths we tell ourselves about the Second World War which is constantly trotted out by Hollywood to bifurcate good and evil, us and them.
DS: You know, the problem with the Second World War is just that, that it’s used as the analogy for almost every single war since. Any dictator or strongman we don’t like is the new Hitler. Saddam Hussein was the new Hitler, Slobodan Milosevic was the new Hitler. The Taliban are the new Nazis. Islamofascist gets thrown around. If you don’t respond with military force quick enough, what’s the argument they always make? The Munich Analogy, right? The idea that all of the allies were sort of, you know, placating Hitler, you know, and they were appeasing him. And it’s constantly used. In fact, I would argue that almost every single--every single major military intervention from the west, specifically the United States, has used a World War II analogy. And I started to think, but what if that entire analogy was mythology, largely? What if this was either an anomaly in part, the Second World War, or that we’re not even understanding what really happened at Munich? We’re not really understanding happened in the war? So there was--there were both--the two main aspects when we look at just war theory, or jus in bello, right? How you fight the war, and jus ad bellum, whether it’s a good war to fight. And I think on both merits, especially the first, World War II does not look as “good,” as it’s often build as by Hollywood media and politicians.
CH: Well, as you point out, unlike the First World War, the primary victims were non-combatants.
DS: That’s right. It is the first war where the--there in--the first modern war where that kind of changes where, you know, nine million soldiers die in the First World War. But there’s not a ton of civilian casualties, except for, you know, the Spanish flu, and stuff that came around the same time. One great example is aerial bombardment of cities. Early in the war, when the Germans bombed Rotterdam in 1940, there were a few hundred or maybe about, you know, several hundred deaths of civilians. President Roosevelt said this was an unprecedented, horrifying crime. This needs to be punished. How could this be done, you know, that same president orders what turns out to be about a million German and Japanese civilians to be purposefully bombed from the sky, murdered from the sky. And so that is a very interesting component of how quickly the moral calculus changed once we were in the war. And once the--what was seen as the necessities but that should go on quotes, the necessities of victory required. Of course, the US Army Air Corps did its own strategic bombing survey after the war and determined that actually it had very little effect on the outcome of the war to murder all those civilians. To incinerate them, to boil them in canals or they went to hide in Tokyo. I think this is an important thing to grapple with. What human beings are capable of, that’s what the Second World War teaches me and it’s a rather dark thing.
CH: Well, Tokyo, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, these were not military targets.
DS: That’s right. Truman said that Hiroshima was a military target. That was what he said in his statement, and justified. But there was absolutely no evidence for it. And I do think this is important, too. A myth has developed around the bombings, the two atomic bombings, the only country on the planet to ever use them on human beings. That’s a fascinating thing that I think we have to deal with when we talk about our past. But, you know, there was no evidence that these were military targets. There’s plenty of evidence that the Japanese were beat, they were reaching out to the Soviets, they were ready to surrender. A lot of this was a signal to the Soviet Union. Look what we have. Also, we just wanted to sort of test out these bombs. And a lot of the people who were skeptical of dropping the atomic bomb, a lot of them have statues at West Point, like Dwight Eisenhower, and like--even Douglas MacArthur and otherwise bloodthirsty guy willing to sacrifice his own troops in many cases. And Navy guys, like, you know, Admiral “Bull” Halsey not known as a weak guy. You don’t get the nickname Bull if you’re known as like, a weak guy within the Navy. They were all skeptical of the strategic bombing, but specifically of the atomic bombing. And no one remembers that. I never learned that in school until I studied it on my own.
CH: Well, there was actually opposition to the bombing--heavy opposition within the White House. But, of course, the transition to Truman saw that overridden.
DS: Certainly, and one of the great counterfactuals in history and academic historians tend not to like to, you know, deal with counterfactuals, but I think they can be instructive as philosophical exercises. If Henry Wallace, who is the more--the more dovish of Roosevelt’s vice presidents, who was replaced by Truman for political reasons, you know, to--in order to shore up the base, as he runs for his fourth term. It is interesting to wonder what Henry Wallace who, after the war, wanted to have sort of a rapprochement with the Soviets whether he would’ve dropped the bomb. We’ll never know that. But it is sort of an accident of history that Harry Truman happens to be the president just a few months after Roosevelt when the bombs are dropped. But there was serious opposition even among the four and five-star generals. And one last thing about this that’s interesting, one of the people who worked for the head of the Air Force, who later became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he was a staff planner, he was like a captain. And his name was Robert McNamara. And Robert McNamara tells a story about how he was--he was in charge of making the bombing as efficient as possible. By efficient we mean he wanted to make the firebombing even before the atomic bombing as deadly as possible. That was his job for a living. And he remembers one time that bombs away Curtis LeMay, who later becomes one of the chairman’s of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Kennedy, and wants the new Cuba, he said, “You know--you know, Bob if we lose this war, they’d probably hang us for war crimes”, and basically he said, “McNamara did, we probably would have deserved it.”
CH: Okay. Let’s talk about the mythology perpetrated by Hollywood that we defeated the Nazis because as you point out in the book, this factually is incorrect.
DS: I think this is important too, because, you know, if you run in, you know, conservative young male circles, that is not impossible to see a T-shirt that says, you know, cheekily, “USA back to back World War champs.” There’s this mythology that the United States has saved Europe twice. And that is oversimplified and frankly, just incorrect. Eight out of ten German soldiers who die in at war, and even more of the divisions that were tied down, that was done by the Soviets, it was really, you know, sort of American trucks and military aid combined with Soviet blood that wins that war. And maybe a little bit of British pluckiness. But it was important to deny the decisiveness of the Soviet campaign against the Nazis when after the war, we went right back to Cold War with them. Because one of the mythologies is that we both, you know, the Cold War starts in 1946, or ‘48, or ‘49. Of course, we had always been opposed to the Soviets ever since right October, ever since the Russian Revolution. This was an alliance of convenience, we went right back to the Cold War. And it was important to deny the decisiveness of the Soviet role. That’s very important, too. Because it also gives the idea that American military power has the capable of doing enormous good. It could stop a holocaust. Of course, we made no effort to do that. It could stop a dictator. Of course, we weren’t the decisive element doing that. So that mythology has political ramifications and political uses. And that’s why I think World War II is one of the more important subjects to really deflate the myths of it.
CH: Great. When we come back, we will continue our conversation about the myths America tells itself about itself with the historian, Danny Sjursen. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our discussion about the myths America tells itself about itself with the historian, Danny Sjursen. Just--I don’t know if you remember off the top of your head, but the figures in terms of the military destruction that is visited on the Wehrmacht in Russia just dwarfs what happened with the landings on D-Day and afterwards. I mean, the disparity you quote the figures in the book is quite pronounced.
DS: You know, about 4,000 American soldiers died on D-Day or Allied Soldiers day. That’s a lot. The Russians would lose hundreds of thousands in a campaign that was basically simultaneous to, you know, the D-Day landings, and the two months after, as we were kind of starting to drive across France, and that’s Operation Bagration. You know, when they are killing 250,000 Germans. And they’re dealing with five, six, eight, ten times as many German divisions, they’re actually the only reason D-Day is a possibility. The reason it is plausible to have the Saving Private Ryan moment, right? The Hollywood mythologized Longest Day, all these movies about D-Day that we celebrate so much, was because the Soviets were tying down so many divisions that the German General in charge of defending France never had the resources to really stop us at the beaches, or at least not to stop, you know, consequence, resupply of those beachheads.
CH: Let’s talk about Roosevelt because--which I didn’t know until I read your book. But there was an effort of--secret effort by Roosevelt to push us into the war, which was patently illegal.
DS: One of the things about Roosevelt that I used to asked my students, you know, I said that these were based on lectures, but really we would have discussions. I would ask provocative questions, and we would, you know, dig into it, but they had done the reading the night before. I would say, is Roosevelt dangerous? And what I meant by that was the accumulation of executive power. Now, some of the more conservative cadets are the cadets who have very conservative fathers or families would say, “Yes, because the new deal is illegal,” you know, it ruined capitalism and all this. I said that’s not what I’m talking about in this lesson. I’m talking about is he--is he dangerous as Commander-in-Chief because he’s gotten a pretty good rep out of this war for the most part, especially among Democrats. You know, he’s the one who beats the Nazis. He’s the one who has the foresight, you know, we have to fight these people. But in order to do it--and maybe this isn’t, you know, maybe that--there’s no doubt that the Nazi war machine was a massive threat. But the ramifications of the centralization of power in the executive branch, he literally has the Navy in a shooting war with the Nazi U-boats. He’s arming convoys again--against the law. He is basically secretly creating a fait accompli, where the United States is not only going to probably get involved in the war because of these actions, but it’s at--we’re actually in a shooting war. And when it comes to that, he even has a secret conference at Placentia Bay off the coast of Newfoundland, where he’s got all his chiefs of his military services and he meets Churchill secretly, no one knows anything about this, and they wrote a war plan for how they were going to collaborate together months before the war begins. There was an enormous centralization of executive power for war-making that we’re still seeing today, so much so that we have not declared war fence, we leave that to the presidents. And that’s extra constitutional. One would think that some of the more conservative elements in the American political spectrum would be very concerned about this aspect of American war-making, but it really does generate in a real way out of the Second World War and Roosevelt, the New Deal Democrat.
CH: You write in the book, “When US soldiers did fight, at least in Europe, they were often outmatched by the Germans and equipped with gear that was inferior,” I would--my father was a sergeant in North Africa. That’s also a true statement for when they fought the Germans in North Africa. But that’s--again implodes, I think, a myth about American superiority. Explain.
DS: Well, North Africa was probably the best example because that was our first foray into this major, especially armored warfare with the Germans. So at this point, our three years into the war, very effective, you know, craftsmanship and technology. Plus they’re battle hardened. And at the Battle of Kasserine Pass, our first major battle in, you know, Tunisia, with the Germans, we take a beating. I believe it was Ike who said, “We got one hell of a beating.” And he was horrified when he visited the battlefield. He used to talk about it for like the rest of his life. But even across to the end of the war, it would take, you know, three, four, five Sherman tanks to basically overwhelm and surround and fire from the back into these Panzer tanks and then eventually the tigers and the panthers. And that’s just one example. In many cases, it was just the mass of American forces. And again, the mass of Soviet forces on the Eastern Front that made this war possible. When it came to the tactical level, someone like Paul Fussell who you quoted at the very start of the chapter, and at the very start of this segment, you know, he fought as an American infantry Lieutenant, a second lieutenant like I did in Iraq, in battles that I can’t fathom. And he wrote many times that they felt outmatched. And it was just a total misunderstanding of the heroism and mythologizing and what he calls sanitizing of the Second World War. And I think that’s a key word in American history and it applies to a lot of other cases.
CH: Well, if you take, for instance, the Battle of the Bulge, because there was heavy cloud cover, the Germans rolled over the American army until the clouds lifted and they were--they were able to dominate through airpower.
DS: I think that’s important. And one vignette kind of was instructive on a lot of things we’re talking about. One of the divisions, I believe it was the 106th, the Mountain Wolves that of Colorado was utterly overwhelmed. And almost all of them were killed or captured. And one of the people captured was the great writer, Kurt Vonnegut, who was then a prisoner of war shepherded into the city of Dresden, a nonmilitary target that had been mostly spared, and was there as a prisoner of war hiding in a meat locker essentially, which was called, you know, slaughterhouse number five, when that happened, and then afterwards came out and saw the destruction that the American Army Air Corps had done and helped to burn the bodies and gathered them. And an effect that it had on him was that he never accepted that sanitization in the mythologizing of war and his novels show it. But--so that demonstrates that we were often overmatched, if we didn’t have the air power, or the superior numbers, when the cloud cover was there, and then he saw firsthand the utter brutality against women and children and old people that we were willing to demonstrate in order to win this war or bring it to a swifter, we thought conclusion. Of course, it didn’t have that effect. It was just murder.
CH: Yeah, and of course, he wrote “Slaughterhouse-Five,” one of the great books on war. Let’s talk about the South Pacific and the war against Japan. And my uncle fought in that war. They didn’t take any prisoners. They were cutting off ears and teeth for trophies and boiling Japanese skulls. He came back destroyed, drank himself to death and the--and the racial element. You didn’t see so much the racial element in the war against Germany because they were White. But the demonization of the Japanese had a heavy racial overtone, and the savagery of that war was unlike anything we saw, even in Europe.
DS: And a lot of that was kind of crafted on the home front. The dehumanization of the Japanese other was a calculated endeavor that was waged not only by the war department’s posters that showed the Japanese with the, you know, the buck teeth and like evil looking faces carrying white women over their shoulders, but also by Warner Bros. If--I used to show my cadets Bugs Bunny cartoons that were utterly racist and would make the Japanese out to be like animals mixed with children at the same time. And then I would ask my students, I would say, “Why are we surprised that we dropped the atomic bombs? Why are we surprised that we firebombed, you know, Tokyo on March 9th through 10th in one evening, killing 90,000 mostly women and children when this was in the Marine Corps Leatherneck magazine and I would show them an ad and it depicts a Japanese face, a racialized one--racist one with like a caterpillar, sort of, body it’s, like, almost like a bug, a vermin.” And it says that the Japanese--the caption does, are a vermin, the--it’s like, you know, Japanese extinct us or something, they give it like a scientific biological name. And this vermin is in the cities of Tokyo and all these other cities, and it has to be extinguished basically by, you know, an exterminator. And that was the same month that we firebombed Tokyo. So this was crafted at home and then the savagery was reflected at the front by soldiers who were racist themselves, who were utterly brutal, almost no prisoners taken and in a sense, it shouldn’t surprise us that the American army was capable of doing this.
CH: Well, the war in the South Pacific was about extermination, Eugene Sledge, and “With the Old Breed” is a fantastic memoir of the war you write, “When American Marines ambushed an attacking force, eight hundred Japanese died and only one surrendered after some of the wounded tried to kill approaching American medics and the Marines slaughtered every surviving Japanese soldier.” And that’s an--a side of the war we very rarely acknowledge or see.
DS: I think that I’m really interested in the cultural history as I know you are as well, Chris. I mean, why are there so many more movies made about the European Theater than the Pacific Theater? And why are the war movies that are made about the Pacific Theater very old and sort of romanticized like the Sands of Iwo Jima? I think it’s because this is an uncomfortable aspect of the war to tell the truth about and so Hollywood, you know, as a propagandizing factory, in many ways, has chosen what they’ve decided was the more romantic theater, the one that fits the narrative of America as the, you know, salvation of the world, and this messianic mission that we have, and that we are the most moral army in the world. Of course, the Israeli Defense Force actually calls themselves that, but we use that sort of language as well. When in reality, this was an extermination war. And even when the Japanese were beaten, went to the Russians and said, “Hey, we got to work something out.” We said no to those overtures and instead we dropped two atomic bombs on their cities. And once we did that, very instructively, their one demand basically to surrender was let us keep the emperor as a figurehead. Of course, we let them do that anyway, because once MacArthur got to Japan and had to occupy the place, he didn’t want a guerrilla war to start. He wanted that to be as easy a mission as possible, recommended to keep the emperor, they in fact did. So what are we to say about those hundreds of thousands people that we incinerated and that the cancer deaths afterwards? What was the point? And I think we have to ask that hard question about even our most mythologized war.
CH: And I think we shouldn’t fail to mention that 112,000 Japanese Americans, 79,000 of whom were citizens weren’t turned in caps in the United States because of that racism. Great. That was Danny Sjursen, on his new book, “A True History of the United States: Indigenous Genocide, Racialized Slavery, Hyper-Capitalism, Militarist Imperialism and Other Overlooked Aspects of American Exceptionalism.