Rabaul and American Collectivism
Published on: October 7, 2007
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  • Lee McKusick

    I apologize for being off topic, but I couldn’t find another posting pathway.

    I urge AI to invite Thomas P.M. Barnett to write or appear in an interview.

    Some themes appearing in AI are developed and explored in Dr. Barnett’s book The Pentagon’s New Map.

    I reached the AI pages through a BBC news editorial that quotes Francis Fukuyama from one of his “end of…” quotes in 1992.

    And thanks, I wish Mr. Fukuyama the best of internal Socratic dialogues, as he and others develop better ideas as we move past the identites of mass warfare.

  • “The Marines have lost a thousand men in Anbar province over the past few years. Their story is every bit as heroic as those who fought on Guadalcanal, but I suspect that they will be remembered more like their heroic compatriots in I Corps during Vietnam—not as typical representatives of a great and united people, but as individuals caught in a strange and incomprehensible struggle.”

    That is a really sad fact of this war, right now, Dr. Fukuyama. Largely because of the divisive and polarizing ways that this discussion about the war has taken. Which is all the more reason to remember those soldiers for their enormous courage, given that they have very little control over the propaganda war back home and are still, generally, committed to this effort in numbers far greater and with far clearer and self-sacraficing motivations than ideologues and average joes and janes alike back home.

    Vietnam and Iraq both have much nobility attached to them, despite the propaganda. What distinguished them is that they were much more complicated, largely because the motivations of self-interest were less clear for Americans – versus a Japanese air attack and the threat of invading Japanese, Nazi, and Fascist armed forces – even as intentions by soldiers, at least, of saving people from dictatorship were noble. Both wars have been more vulnerable to propaganda because the self-interest by Americans to engage in the war has been less clear than the defensive posture of World War II and because the politics of both wars was, hence, much more complicated than earlier wars. What measures need to be taken when fighting for the freedom of others – namely, how should they be consulted about such matters? How do we take the value of self-determination seriously when those wanting to self-determine doubt, often for good reasons, the motivations of those looking to offer them the chance to choose their own destiny more freely and democratically? How do we separate more noble from less noble intentions when we operate out of and rationalize poorer intentions so regularly and often? How do liberal democracies convince less liberal peoples that they are acting out of something more noble when they so often act of out less noble intentions and rationalize such as “the way things are” rather than honestly reconcile such motivations with more noble motivations so that more noble commitments more clearly lead our efforts? And how do American political leaders call forth self-sacrifice and a willingness to engage such questions, which will be necessary as wars become more complicated, when their focus is on winning elections in more cynical and conventional fashion that persistently dumbs down and preys upon Americans’ most base impulses?

    These are questions Americans and liberal democracies and the illiberal world, as much as they are able, will need to start asking ourselves as liberal democracies face challenges to their liberal values and as illiberal states and cultures look for more free and democratic opportunities to determine their own destinies. There clearly is no pacifist utopia that so many anti-war ideologues seek. So the question is how are we going to engage war, when and only when it is necessary and no other alternatives exist, in a way that comes from and calls forth our most genuinely self-sacraficing and noble commitments?

    It will involve more engaged thought, which has been sorely lacking in the current political milieu. And it will need to involve much more serious humility and genuine commitment to the interests of others as much as ourselves than the current political class has been willing or able to offer up, at this point.

    But it is the only commitment that will allow us to engage militarily, when we need to, that is not always questioning our motives, in liberal democracies where are motives should be and are questioned rigorously.

    We just need to do so more rigorously in a way that does not substitute cynicism for faith, which is altogether too fashionable in Washington and conventional national political circles, these days.

    There is nobility in us. If we can only give up our pretenses of fashionable cynicism and intellectual hubris long enough to dig deep for it.

    And that is the only way that liberal democracies will ever fight a war like this one and ever feel good about it.

    Ben Sutherland

  • One question that arises considering the thought that, in contrast to WWII, American troops now find themselves (and, presumably, are likely to find themselves in future) “as individuals caught in a strange and incomprehensible struggle,” is whether the different sort of “collectivity” created by the all-volunteer-military is not a form of support and emotional compensation comparable to that received by WWII soldiers. Ken Burns makes it relatively easy for us to see the emotional “why” of participation in “the good war” (even in the face of some pretty strange and incomprehensible battles). But it is harder to understand the emotional “why” of serving in Anbar. Nonetheless, there is one and it seems to come, in some part, from the esprit of the professional military. More interesting, however, is that it comes from more than just that, and we’ll have to understand how as we rethink the use of American force abroad. A good start at doing so might be to read Christopher Hitchens’s piece on Mark Jennings Daily in the latest Vanity Fair.

  • Just a quick correction from someone who admires historical comparisons like this essay, and accuracy in World War II references even more. Dr. Fukuyama writes that a “stricken Hornet” crash-landed on the deck of an aircraft carrier. No naval airplane by that name existed during World War II–the plane was likely an F4F Wildcat or perhaps a torpedo or dive bomber. Rather, there was the U.S.S. Hornet, the Yorktown-class aircraft carrier that launched the Doolittle Raid, fought at Midway, and was sunk in October 1942 at the Battle of Santa Cruz. Still, Dr. Fukuyama’s description of the carrier’s sailors rushing to the aid of the trapped pilot alludes to another enduring aspect of war that will be true from the first to the last. Men might enlist to fight for their country, but they risk their lives and occasionally die for their friends, and sometimes even for strangers.

  • Kevin Dunn

    There is surely one sane and good path to take: in peacetime, individualism should be emphasised, or at least given every opportunity to flourish. In wartime the collective must be emphasised, but with social mechanisms of various sorts in place to ensure the primacy of the individual and individual freedom will return once the emergency is past. Not only America but all the English-speaking countries have been fairly good (by no means perfect) at walking this path in the wars of the previous centyury, and they must continue to walk it.

  • Henry

    World War II has distorted all discussion of warfare in the United States.

    When you look back at the history of the US, you can find a sum total of three to five indisputably defensible wars. Presuming one favors the idea of the United States to begin with, you have the Revolutionary War and its sequel, the War of 1812. In roughly the same era you also have the Barbary Wars. Then you have to fast forward over 120 years to 1941.

    Between 1815 and 1941, and since 1945, America has shed (and gushed) blood profusely in any number of conflicts, large and small, but none of it with the clarity of WWII. WWII is the rare historical exception, and not the norm. The norm is that warfare is domestically contentious and morally ambiguous–consider the objections to the Mexican War (with Lincoln among the vociferous critics), and the disgust over the Philippines War.

    Another “united front” war like WWII is possible, of course, but really should not be welcomed–it seems likely it would require the US to be in true existential peril (not the case with the bogus Roman numbered “world wars” stamped out by Norman Podhoretz and company). And that is nothing to look forward to.

  • Charles Cosimano

    The truth is that the notion of a unified nation all cheerfully sacrificing itself for WW2 is pretty much as big a myth as the notion that every college student in the Vietnam era was anti-war.

    Being the boomer that I am, I have vivid memories of my parents and their friends talking about the Great Patriotic War, not mentioning sacrifice, but rather recounting how they traded on the black market for meat and got around rationing by doing various favors for people. My father, for example, had what was called an A card which meant he had a steady supply of gasoline. He would fill up his tank, siphon half off and trade that for other items.

    None of the men in my family were in the military, all had protected occupations and made damned sure that they stayed protected and, on every Memorial Day, as the veterans marched by, (the parade went down the street in front of our house) my father would whisper in my ear, “Remember son, those were the damned fools who got shot at.” Considering that my mother had been engaged to a man who went off to do his internationalist duty (we are talking the language of collectivists here) and ended up getting killed, my father was making perfectly good sense. He not only got through the war years with good health, he got my mother as well.

  • Carol Anne

    I’d rather see Americans united to fight poverty, disease, ignorance, etc. War is nothing to aspire to.

  • rex

    Just a brief comment from a non-historian. It strikes me that one of the important ideas that few seem to get is that WWII was a very unusual war. Look at any other wars in the past and it’s easy to become enmeshed in the murky notions, confusing motivations and hard-to-explain strategies (from any and all participants) that lead to the conflict.

    WWII doesn’t reach the level of ambiguity that almost all other wars are steeped in. And yet, because of the scope and necessity of WWII, because of its size and relatively positive outcomes, we have come to think of it as the “definitive war.” “This is what war, in its essence, is,” we like to think.

    And that is far from the truth. Most wars are more like Viet Nam, or the Franco-Prussian, or WWI, of the Spanish-American War. Studying those conflicts, we find ourselves asking, “What the heck was THAT about?”

    Sometimes armed conflict becomes necessary and perhaps even unavoidable. But in our eagerness to honor the many good things that came out of WWII, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that wars, and their causes, generally aren’t so clear-cut.

    Maybe we would then become a bit more cautious, a bit more intelligent, about the making huge sacrifices that any war demands.

  • Hobbes Johnson

    Little nitpick: The “..stricken Hornet landing on the deck…” confused me until I realized that it should be “stricken Hellcat”. There is a very frequently seen movie clip of a Grumman Hellcat fighter crash landing and splitting in half behind the pilot. Hornet was an aircraft carrier.

  • Peter Brawley

    “Victory at Sea” was American military boosterism. To call its celebration of spectacular US military exploits “innocent championing” is to join it in its most egregious immorality: glorification of war and minimization of war’s enduring human costs—two of the threads that led the US to Vietnam and to Iraq.

  • Max Edison

    In the 4th paragraph, there is a reference to a blazing Hornet crashing onto a carrier. I believe the aircraft was an F6F Hellcat, as the only Hornet in the US Navy was the aircraft carrier sunk by the Japanese at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. That was before the F6F entered combat service. The Hornet was the ship that carried Doolittle’s raiders for the attack on Japan in April 1942.

  • Alan Vanneman

    I am surprised that a thinker of Mr. Fukuyama’s stature would be surprised by the fact that the past is not like the present.

    I fought in the Vietnam War. I do not think that it is cynicism to complain that Lyndon Johnson deliberately manipulated the facts to win from Congress authorization to enter a war that was irrelevant to America’s security. I do not think it is cynicism to complain that George Bush has done the same thing.

  • Its fascinating to see the comments section to this article repeatedly pointing out that while there was a U.S.S. Hornet, Fukuyama referred to a “striken Hornet” as if it was a name of an aircraft.

    This is not to focus on nit-picking — but it can be worth examining the details that underpin our collective understanding that World War II was an unambiguously “good war.” It’s details, great and small, that create what we remember about these wars, and getting them wrong can lead to the wrong conclusions.

    Every war, even the “good” ones, have their complications and moral ambiguities, to say nothing of the current conflict Fukuyama initially supported. We should bear this in mind whenever there’s a positive evocation to that great war.


  • Russ Thayer

    Mr. Cosimano, it sounds as if your mother lost a man, married a piss ant and gave birth to an ass wad. What a post!

  • Ian Morrison

    In recent years, Mr Fukuyama has moved from ostensibly absurd statements (e.g. concerning “the end of history”) to the safely platitudinous. I suppose that’s progress of a sort.

    No, neither America nor any other democracy has acheived the cohesion in subsequent wars that was found in fighting Hitler and his allies. Let us be glad that a second Hitler has not arisen.

    Similarly, the collectivism was in no small part a reaction to the crisis of old-style capitalism in the 1930s. Again. let us be glad that subsequent generations have not had to go through anything remotely resembling the Great Depression

    BTW I have fond memories of seeing “Victory at Sea” as a small boy in the UK on a 13 inch television screen, whilst my dad, an RAF veteran, explained to me what it was all about.

    Just last week I was talking to another RAF veteran, who had sat heroically in his rear-gunner’s cockpit night after night over a hostile continent. When I commented on the particularly exposed and dangerous position he’d been in, he chipped in without a second’s thought: “I wouldn’t say that. We were all in it together!”

    Different time, different folks.

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  • eusebio

    America is the hope of the world. The American ethos of being American , belonging to one nation,belonging to a greater sum than individual parts, regardless of race, sex, or national origin religion, , the old model of assimilation avoid, America to turn into the, Sudan , Balkans,Ceylan, India, Nigeria, Rwanda, etc, full of ethnic cultural , religious conflicts, wars , genocides.
    America increasingly is sailing toward joining the same fate than our Melting Pot ,Assimilation supporter try to prevent.
    We know that. Now, we can do something to prevent to mirror such hellish future.
    Do we want to live like Beirut, not ?
    then we should do the right thing, Do what our leaders were able to do in the early xx
    Ban legal immigration ( for several decades )in order to assimilate the immigrants, enforce our immigrations laws,
    Conduct civic campaigns , ban dual citizenship, create strict standards to grant the citizenship. First, extensive background check including political past of Anti American affiliation, read , speak and know American history , in the past senior citizens were not granted citizenships without speaking English. In Latin America, Asia , Africa, the requirement for citizenship are very strict , while in America are very lenient. Any claims from individuals or groups of racism ,etc should be confronted with real facts and exposure of
    behavior, rules and laws in effect in their countries of origin and also Cultural confrontation. Racism, etc are evils which flourish in Latin America, Asia, Africa however the groups, and the immigrants and Americans(who consider global citizens and despise America and the clergy, and even politicians of all stripes and parties with their silence the Moral Value of what it means to be America.

    Watching the candidates of both parties,and talk radio, I feel dismay and betrayed.
    With the exception of exception of Tancredo.( I do not support all his positions ) None of the other candidates seems to fully acknowledge that to save America, assimilation , immigration, are keys,
    balance budget, social conservatives values , etc are fine but without assimilation,
    we will keep having many born American or immigrants holding social conservatives values but without not loyalty or not identification to our nation . Balance budget is needed but it is not substitute for assimilation to save national identity .
    To save America from the fate which Montaigne
    witness in France and we witness from Egypt,to Mexico, from China to Ukraine

    But the dice seems cast , doubts,hesitations and lack of will rule today.
    It is not too late yet but we are getting closer to too late.

  • WJYoder

    Mr. Fukuyama’s elitist understanding of war is disappointing and simply disgusting. I pray for the day when people refuse to come together in order to solve problems by destroying each other.

  • Bill Young

    Unmentioned: Cato’s history of the Punic Wars, in which he never mentioned any Roman by name, instead preferring to call them simply by their titles: e.g., “And the Roman centurion said, ‘We are happy to serve.'”

    I take it that that’s the most obvious historical parallel.

  • NSH

    It’s Richard RODGERS, not Rogers. Cheers.

  • Wanda

    I tried to watch “Victory at Sea” once and it just was too much; the hokey dance-band music interwoven with obvious rip-offs of Shostakovich: I mean, please. Then there is the narration–Fukuyama doesn’t seem to know that the script was written largely by Richard Hanser in cooperation with Henry Salomon, Jr., historian and naval officer–which technically is very good, spare, almost free verse, but the content…”the Japanese Empire spills over its appointed bounds”–huh? Who appointed those bounds? The European Empires? Why was it okay for Britain, France and Holland to subjugate peoples, nations and cultures but not Japan? They were all just gangsters who acquired their spoils through murder and conquest, the British with their opium wars no better than the Japanese with their rape of Nanking.
    Why was it the business of Americans to drive off one empire to save other empires?
    If the gang of Brook Adams, Henry Adams, John Hay, Alfred Mahan,Theodore Roosevelt, et al had not gotten us into the Spanish-American War, we wouldn’t have acquired the Philippines, Guam, Wake (and if we had stuck with Grover Cleveland’s foreign policy, not Hawaii, either), and we would never have had a dog in the fight of the imperial powers over their Asia/Pacific bone.
    The war in Europe was the result of the collapse of the European state system. It was not an American affair. If we had stayed out of World War I, Germany would probably have won, establishing the pre-eminent position it has gained in Europe anyway, despite losing both world wars. There might not have even been a second world war in Europe. Who knows? In any case, whether there was or not, why were Americans compelled by state power to die in it? The British and French Empires collapsed anyway, the Nazis and Soviets would have fought each other to death without our intervention…
    World War Two was just as bogus as any other, it’s collectivism forced on Americans by the new powers of mass media, of which “Victory at Sea” is a good example, having been backed by Robert W. Sarnoff, son of David and one of the founders of network television.

  • Patrick MacKinnon

    Those modern apologists who lay the horrendous Twin Tower attack at the door of the US because of decadent interference with Muslim interests;
    had they existed in 1941,would similarly have
    excused the Japanese because the US had cut off their source of petroleum. The question is, why
    do we have them now but didn’t then? Or did they not dare to do it then, and why not? We
    need to revive whatever circumstance that was
    that made unity an imperative. The US should not be fighting a war across the floor of The
    House anymore than they did in 1941.

  • Sounds like a real task is putting WWII up for careful reexamination: Hitler was not just a unique individual. Germany was put in a bad situation and when people suffer the kind of economic pressure Germans did between wars, they are likely to do bad things. Don’t put people in bad situations seems to be the lesson. All these wars are embedded in complex causes, usually elite greed controlling national destinies. WWII tter seen as the second phase of the First WW, which itself was a colonial war with very complex causes.

  • JDG

    Interesting thesis, if flawed. But another detail point. Rabaul is not the capital of the province. Kokapo is and Gazelle is a district, not a province.

  • The music of Richard Rodgers (with his collaborator, Russell Bennet) indeed makes Victory At Sea something worth remembering now in our regrettable era. On reflection we also hear the collossal work of Shostakovich, the Leningrad Symphony; plus every lesser musical event of those years; before the insanity started in the 1960s.

    Ever since rock and roll changed us forever, and most of all during Vietnam and afterwards, we saw the musical culture grow fangs. Non-entities such as Bob Dylan and various other pretend poets and musicians took on a mythical status. Today we have instead of musical giants, the offspring of a clueless society. Where there was once music we now hear grunts, defiance and banality.

  • Victory at Sea, a staple of late teatime viewing in the UK in the very late 1950’s I recall. Along with the later ‘Winston Churchill:The Valient Years’.

    Several of the Victory at Sea episodes on the BBC were preceded by an onscreen announcer reminding viewers that ‘this is an American programme made for Americans and emphasises US contributions to the war in this treatre’.

    This was because there was quite considerable negative reaction from UK and Canadian veterans to the episodes on the Battle of the Atlantic which showed US ships and aircraft in action and hardly mentioned the Royal Navy or the Royal Canadian Navy.

  • eusebio

    The level of callosity, inhumanity , and lack of solidarity with fellow human beings which dwell in the hearts , minds , souls of the so called, progressives, liberals,etc in America and the West
    is horrendous
    Humans beings suffer if they are torture in Moscow or in Berlin if their nails are pull with pincers by the Mao or Ho Chi Min, Fidel repressive agents or by Pinochet agents
    Baltic invasion and annexation,

    Cambodia genocide, Tibet genocide, etc etc Ukraine millions of victims, Poland victims at the hands of the Communist , Hungary so so so so on

    No marches not protest, not burning of Red China flags,
    Not solidarity for the millions of humans beings who suffer and keep suffering still today.

    Those lay and clergy who claim to be against death penalty like Susan Sarandon but who join to support regimes like Castro cuba or the Palestines whose legal system allows the practice death penalty , those who march for disarm the West but support and applaud the Arm Race of Non Western
    Those who rant against America opposing self determination of the people like in the case of Puerto Rico which enjoys free election and the Independent Party always receive low per cent

    Those who never rant against Red China blackmailing at gun point the people of Taiwan . Taiwanese want to choose their own destiny not to be force to become Chinese province even the majority of the Taiwanese are not ethnically Chinese but
    Those who rant for Pro determination of th e
    people silence against clear case of imperialism
    Israel, before Palestine, Israel existed.
    So if the case who were first,
    Clearly Israel historically had a realistic , legitimate claim. At least that the people forget that before the Arabs conquered the Holy Land the Jews before the Greeks ,Romans already were there
    Same patterns
    Ideologies who practice warfare conquer are exempt of any attack
    Despite having a clear historical track records
    Those who despise Western , American arm forces
    Never seems to find
    The Warlike, Imperialistic Hordes of Colonial
    Communist, Islamic etc Conqueror
    Evil, bad , disgusting. People has been murder, torture but because it is due to Western war efforts, such people, such fellow
    humans does not matter

    While Nationalism Patriotism is exalted in all those culture

    For those crowd of Useful tool
    Many of them part of the educated elite
    of the successful business community ,
    who cry against America when America confront torture and punish the perpetrators while
    They , embrace people and culture who according to Human Rights Watch , practice torture without accountability
    The majority of the members of the United Nations

    Those people involve in so many social causes
    We want to change the world and so full of hate against America who they claim to be th e worse

    But Compare to whom, measure to whom,

    They are the ones who enjoy the rights in America to act like demagogues freely while they join in alliance with regimes who refuse such privileges to their own people

    And they blind with hate , will never change

  • John Joyce

    I think the Brits produced a product called “The World At War” that got rave reviews world wide. If I’m not mistaken the narrator was Lawrence Olivier

  • I can add nothing to the discussion about the merits of war. But I will say that watching “Victory at Sea” as a boy (born in 1947) was exciting. The music and narration were top notch. I’m sure that if I were to watch it now I’d notice the boosterism and use of phony movie clips. Nevertheless, the series was and is an important record. Just think: what if it had NOT been made?


    Professor Fukuyama wonders why the American people do not feel fully involved in the wars waged since World War II. Fukuyama should consider this conclusion reached by military historian Adrian Lewis, a former Army officer:

    The most significant transformation in the American conduct of war since World War II and the invention of the atomic bomb, was not technological, but cultural, social, and political- THE REMOVAL OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE FROM THE CONDUCT OF WAR. (Adrian Lewis, THE AMERICAN CULTURE OF WAR (Routledge, 2007).

    If Professor Fukuyama, THE AMERICAN INTEREST’s editors, and the rest of our foreign policy “elite” wish to know who removed the American people from the conduct of war, they need only look in the mirror.

    Christopher M. Gray.

  • Mary C. Sommers

    I found Ken Burns’ series rather flat and disappointing, despite much amazing footage. I compared it, however, to the “The World at War”, the 26 episode Thames Television production, rather than “Victory at Sea”. Burns’ series seemed parochial, in comparison, and never quite managed to achieve a sense of the scope and meaning of the events. “Pity and Fear” a la Aristotle cannot be achieved in the viewer merely by showing more dead bodies than previous documentaries.

  • charles

    I remember watching Victory at Sea on late night tv when I was a boy. I found it fascinating and quite heroric. Of course it glorified warfare and was really great propaganda. Almost no one who has been in combat would see it that way. They see the terrible waste and never forget what has happened.

    Of all the comments, the ones that seems to ring the most true was by Wanda. Our involvement in the Spanish-American War was truly regrettable. The Spanish tried to avoid the war and the newspaper Barons William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer did their utmost to promote the war. After the war, the Phillipinos were expecting liberation from Spain and instead were subjugated by the US Army. Twice as many American died during the Phillipine Insurrection as were killed in the Spanish American War. If the US had given the Phillipinos their freedom, our war with Japan might have beeen avoided.

  • Bob Stern

    One of the things that neither VaS or Burns presentations of the War in the Pacific do justice to is how amazingly different this war was than any war we ever had before or are likely to ever have again. Battles between fleets that never fired on each other, using ship-based aircraft to control rocky small islands, worth nothing except that they could host airfields to continue the battle for the next rocky island: there was no useful pre-existing strategy that this style of war could have been based on. The entire unique battlefield saga ended with the detonation of a uniquely terrible weapon. Of course it was individuals and nations that did the fighting, and these stories can be told. But the bigger picture of this remarkably creative saga of destruction has yet to be captured.

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