Comparing the ‘war on terror’ with WWII

by Victor Davis Hanson // World Net Daily

(Pearl Harbor via WND)
(Pearl Harbor via WND)

Over the years I’ve debated scholars and pundits on issues ranging from illegal immigration (no to open borders), George Bush’s troop levels in Iraq (don’t add and don’t subtract, but change tactics and force the Iraqis to step up), and World War II (the Red Army, for all the savagery and ordeal on the Eastern front, was not mostly responsible for winning the war, and its soldiers were no more courageous than Americans at Bastogne, Normandy Beach, Iwo Jima or Okinawa).

I remember a few years ago when British journalist and historian Sir Max Hastings and I gave differing views at the D-Day Museum in New Orleans on the role of the Soviets in World War II in connection with the efficacy of totalitarian armies versus democratic forces. In passing, I made the point that much of the Red Army’s zeal came not from the superior motivation (provided by the fear of being shot), but by the fact it was for nearly four years fighting on the soil of Mother Russia. And when it was not – Poland 1939, Finland 1939-40, or even Afghanistan in the 1980s – it fought far worse as an expeditionary force than did the Americans in WWI or WWII, whether at Bastogne or Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Yes, it is true that three out of four Wehrmacht soldiers were killed by the Red Army, but the vast majority of Italian and Japanese soldiers were killed by Anglo-Americans; and strategic bombing, Lend-lease, fighting in three simultaneous theaters on three continents, supplying allies, and running a submarine and surface naval campaign across the globe were all beyond the Soviets. In general, I found Hastings astute, deeply learned, and polite, and our differences in emphasis were discussed cordially and in a context of gentility.

World War II redux

On the topic of WWII: After Sept. 11, suddenly the war was in the news as never before, as since then it became the reference point, rightly or wrongly, for much of our current struggle with the jihadists. The 1930s appeasement was seen again in terms of preemption, whether against Saddam or Iran. With the end of the Cold War, and with the nuclear plans of North Korea and Iran, we recalled Hiroshima as never before – especially with the specter that the once bombed Japan might well be forced itself to go nuclear.

How do wars end? We seem now always to seek to explain a reformed Japan and Germany in contrast to the up-in-the-air end of the Korean War or Gulf War I, seeing again the wisdom of our fathers who were intent not to repeat the indecisive armistice of World War I.

Intelligence failures? After the WMD fiasco, we can now understand the failures to anticipate Pearl Harbor or know the magnitude of exactly what was going on in the death camps. Poorly armored humvees brought us back to thin-skinned Shermans and the disastrous daylight, unescorted B-17 raids of 1942-3.

And the U.N. – that postwar liberal, Western notion of collective security and governance – now seems hopelessly naïve, given the illiberal nature of the non-Western states in the General Assembly and Security Council. Then there was the constant looking back to Pearl Harbor immediately after 9/11 – and wondering what would it take to truly anger the American people when we lost more on Sept. 11, 2001, than on Dec. 7, 1941, and on the home soil of the continental United States, right in the heart of our two greatest cities.

Finally, we all evoked the generational differences. To me it was summed up when Democrats spent much of the past decade alleging that “we took our eye off Afghanistan by going into Iraq.” My Lord! This is a country that fought Italy, Japan and Germany all at once, and was in an inferno on Okinawa while racing eastward past the Rhine, while bombing Berlin, while slogging up through Italy, while igniting the Japanese mainland. Our ancestors apparently had quite a lot more eyeballs than did their lesser sons and daughters.

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8 thoughts on “Comparing the 'war on terror' with WWII”

  1. The underpinning of Russian military operations have historically been reliant on superior numbers; dependence on superior numbers alone builds defensive walls of flesh but inversely, and especially pre-WW2, leads to a mass of disorder and tumult when on offence.
    We should also not forget that Russia may have lucked out with the Battles of Khalkhin Gol, as Japan never did join Germany, after the conflict, in invading Russia after the dissolution of the non-aggression pact. This denied Russia the onus of having to fight on two continents within its own borders. They could just pour and pool their superior numbers into one area, the deadliest in of WW2, so that their inefficiencies would not be turned on them. Japan would later pay for this twofold.

  2. I’ve know and argued with some people over the years about how the Russians won the war (or were mostly responsible for winning on the side of the Allies). You describe the folly in that view very well, thank you. U.S. took the lead, kicked butt and took names in WW2.

  3. Agree with everything you say except your comments on Humvee’s. They were replacements for jeeps. That’s all. Never meant to be armored.

  4. Maybe this could sound a bit strange but I would thank you for remembering in your post that actually italians soldiers fought and died during WWII, often they are neglected not being mentioned along the Axis soldiers.
    In my opinion Russians had a tremendous impact on Italians too: during 1940-43 were killed in action 194.000 italian soldiers, of these 14.000 in Greece and 75.000 in Russia, so then not so much “a vast majority” of italian soldiers was killed by anglo-americans…
    They had a significant impact on Japanese also, killing in just 24 days 84.000 soldiers in Manchuria: one wonders what could have been if the russians had fighted earlier against the japanese.

  5. Once again you crystalize the current state of foreign affairs. We are a weak nation not weak individuals. We have many incredibly brave, smart and selfless young americans that we are either ignoring or have abused in our politicized military. I’m now convinced after last Friday’s get together at the White House that we have a traitor as President. He’s not just incompetent but also reckless in his disregard for America’s sovereignty.

  6. What accounts for the major difference in perception of WW2 and the “war on terror”?

    WW2 actively involved a majority of males of fighting age in combat. Yet, those fighting had little knowledge of what was going on elsewhere. The public back home equally had little information about the war. Yet, people were connected, for every family had lives at stake.

    The “war on terror” exposes quite the opposite situation. Only a minority of people are actually involved as soldiers fighting the war. The vast majority at home is presented with an abundance and every detail of combat down to night vision footage of a single missile fired at a truck.

    Unintuitively, the more information the public consumes, the less it is is connected to the war itself. While WW2 was the aggregate of millions of personal first-hand experiences, the “war on terror” is a second-hand media event broadcasted to an audience of millions.

    As a consequence, the public confuses TV with the military. The maximum war effort in the eyes of the TV audience seems to be limited by what size of story the evening news can tell within 15minutes. In fact the US military’s capabilities exceed that frame by an order of magnitude.

    In short, the US military can achieve a victory the media are incapable of telling.

  7. Victor,
    Where are the Kissiniger’s of World War II and the War on Terror in comparisson? How can one not be a fan of you and them?
    I have rarely seen you write on Vietnamization in comparison to what occured in the Pacific theater when Truman knew he had the bomb. She would we or shouldn’t we of used it seems to be a common criticism by the History teacher now in revisionist history. The branch of history you cross reference, I call Histoparllels…or History with Parallelism.

    Nixon’s policy for winding down the war, and it can be applied here in regards to WW2 and the war on terror. We know from History that Conflict is better avoided when troops withdraw, and our governement has something that saves American military lives espeically on Veterans Day, we are all thankful and we remember.

    Are we pushing terror to new heigths with too many troops being the targets of our own ideology of what terror is? President Obama is no Richard Nixon. On the conservative side we all pray for “rain,” and Obamagate. The war on communism during the 1960s and 1970s was that of dealing with the “domino effect.” While the academic was stuck in colleges during the Free speech movement 1964 on ward and protesting, young American GI’s were being drafted into the Vietnam War. Being safe as a rule meant being in college and doging the draft, not so for the World War II veteran.

    As Nixon’s National Security Council chief and later as secretary of state, Henry Kissinger was instrumental in shaping and implementing Nixon’s foreign policy initatives, I wonder as a historian will we ever have a Kissinger again, or the Presidents who held off WW3 but allowed guerilla conflicts to insue. Is the War on Terror a small flame to detract from a possible WW3? Where is Barack Obama’s Peace with Honor as it relates to the war on terror?
    While troop strength was being reduced in Vietnam, bombing raids over North Vietnam and neighboring countries increased. In 1969, Nixon ordered secret bombing raids of netural Cambodia, riots occured in response even at Berkely and Stanford. Our government like that of Anicent Rome does not always tell us the truth.
    The war on terror is no different. WW2 parallels in history are better served in justifiying to the Vietnam Veteran why they didn’t have parades and why it was better to stay in college with your face in a book, rather than you behind in a rice paddy. The veteran came home to a hippy who spat on him because the hippy didn’t go to war, in ancient times there was no choice.

    Counterculture and conflict is the perception of cause and conflict. The greatest effect of our counter culture is that we are unable to reason with a Japanese Kimikazie of World War 2, a north Vietcong Solider carrying a AK47 and a shassel charge or a terrorist that is ready to cut an American head off. Leadership in crisis needs a Henry Kissinger before it needs a savior general, or an atomic bomb. Victor Hanson Jr. and other young Americans shouldn’t have to die, when peace with honor is provoked properly. Conflict without mediation is lunar surface of stupidity. I hope you will write me on your other family members who are enshrined on the Memorial in the Park in Kingsburg. I hope your next book will be about the other family members as Victor Hanson Jr. was fascinating and the linneage of your family members who served. They are extremely interesting happy veterans day, I enjoy your parallel history blogs the most.
    Best your friend,
    Jared Carter/adjunct professor of history/scccd/fresno, ca

  8. One current problem in winning our wars is a lack of precision in defining friends, enemies, and victories. That confusion is fed by an administration seemingly uninterested in any clear definitions at all.

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