The greatest generation and the last good war

We Americans have the dangerous tendency in our international thinking to take a holier-than-thou attitude toward other nations. We consider ourselves to be more noble and decent than other peoples, and consequently in a better position to decide what is right and wrong in the world. What kind of war do civilians suppose we fought, anyway? We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers. We topped off our saturation bombing and burning of enemy civilians by dropping atomic bombs on two nearly defenseless cities, thereby setting an all-time record for instantaneous mass slaughter.

As victors we are privileged to try our defeated opponents for their crimes against humanity; but we should be realistic enough to appreciate that if we were on trial for breaking international laws, we should be found guilty on a dozen counts. We fought a dishonorable war, because morality had a low priority in battle. The tougher the fighting, the less room for decency; and in Pacific contests we saw mankind reach the blackest depths of bestiality.

—Edgar L. Jones, “One War is Enough,” Atlantic, February 1946. Jones was an ambulance driver and journalist during World War II. Reprinted in War No More, Lawrence Rosenwald, ed., (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2016), 281.

I remember as a kid sharing my dad’s interest in the war in the Pacific, where he had sailed aboard Liberty ships. His telling me of American memoirs’ common mention of machine-gunning Japanese sailors in the water was at odds with the mythology served at school.

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