The 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender in May 1945 ought to prompt thoughtful reflection. For Americans, V-E Day, as it was then commonly called, marked the beginning of “our times.” The Covid-19 pandemic may signal that our times are now coming to an end.
Tom Engelhardt, editor and proprietor of TomDispatch, was born less than a year prior to V-E Day. I was born less than two years after its counterpart V-J Day, marking the surrender of Imperial Japan in August 1945.
Tom is a New Yorker, born and bred. I was born and raised in the Midwest.
Tom is Jewish, although non-observant. I am a mostly observant Catholic.
Tom is a progressive who as a young man protested against the Vietnam War. I am, so I persist in claiming, a conservative. As a young man, I served in Vietnam.
Yet let me suggest that these various differences matter less than the fact that we both came of age in the shadow of World War II -- or more specifically in a time when the specter of Nazi Germany haunted the American intellectual landscape. Over the years, that haunting would become the underlying rationale for the U.S. exercise of global power, with consequences that undermined the nation’s capacity to deal with the menace that it now faces.
Tom and I both belong to what came to be known as the Baby Boom generation (though including him means ever so slightly backing up the official generational start date). As a group, Boomers are generally associated with having had a pampered upbringing before embarking upon a rebellious youth (Tom more than I), and then as adults helping ourselves to more than our fair share of all that life, liberty, and happiness had on offer. Now, preparing to exit the stage, we Boomers are passing on to those who follow us a badly damaged planet and a nation increasingly divided, adrift, and quite literally sick. A Greatest Generation we are not.
How did all this happen? Let me suggest that, to unpack American history during the decades when we Baby Boomers sashayed across the world stage, you have to begin with World War II, or more specifically, with how that war ended and became enshrined in American memory.
Of course, we Boomers never experienced the war directly. Our parents did. Tom’s father and both of my parents served in World War II. Yet neither were we Boomers ever truly able to put that war behind us. For better or worse, members of our generation remain the children of V-E Day, when -- so we tell ourselves -- evil was finally vanquished and good prevailed.
For Tom, for me, and for our contemporaries, World War II as history and as metaphor centers specifically on the Nazis and their handiwork: swastikas, mammoth staged rallies, the Gestapo and the SS, the cowardice of surrender at Munich, the lightning offensive campaigns known as blitzkrieg, London burning, the Warsaw Ghetto, slave labor, and, of course, a vast network of death camps leading to the Holocaust, all documented in film, photographs, archives, and eyewitness accounts.
And then there was der Führer himself, Adolf Hitler, the subject of a fascination that, over the decades, proved bottomless and more than slightly disturbing. (If your local library ever reopens, compare the number of books about Hitler to those about Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini or wartime Japanese emperor Hirohito.) Seventy-five years after his death, Hitler remains among us, the supreme villain routinely pressed into service by politicians and media pundits alike intent on raising the alarm about some imminent danger. If ever there were a man for all seasons, it is Adolf Hitler.
Hitler's centrality helps explain why Americans typically date the opening of World War II to September 1939 when the Wehrmacht invaded Poland. Only in December 1941 did the United States (belatedly) join the conflict, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor and other American installations in the Pacific forcing Washington’s hand. In fact, however, a full decade earlier Japan had already set out to create what it would eventually call its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. In September 1931, its forces invaded then Chinese-controlled Manchuria, an undertaking that soon enough morphed into a very large and brutal armed conflict with China proper in which the United States participated on a proxy basis. (Remember the Flying Tigers?) In other words, World War II actually began in Asia rather than Europe, with the first shots fired years before the Nazi attack on Poland.
Yet launching the narrative in September 1939 has the effect of keeping the primary focus on Germany. From a moral perspective, there are ample reasons for doing this: Even in a century of horrendous crimes -- the Armenian genocide, Stalin’s extermination of Ukraine’s kulaks, and Mao Zedong’s murderous campaign against his own people -- the sheer unadulterated evil of the Nazi regime stands apart.
From a political perspective, however, intense preoccupation with one example of iniquity, however horrific, induces a skewed perspective. So it proved to be with the United States during the decades that followed V-E Day. Subsumed within the advertised purposes of postwar U.S. policy, whether called “defense,” “deterrence,” “containment,” “liberation,” or “the protection of human rights,” has been this transcendent theme: “Never Again.” That is, never again will the United States ignore or appease or fail to confront a regime that compares to -- or even vaguely resembles -- Nazi Germany. Never again will it slumber until rudely awakened by a Pearl Harbor-like surprise. Never again will it allow its capacity for projecting power against distant threats to dissipate. Never again will it fail to lead.
Of all Donald Trump’s myriad deficiencies, large and small, this may be the one that his establishment critics find most difficult to stomach: his resurrection of “America First” as a primary principle of statecraft suggests a de facto nullification of “Never Again.”
To Trump’s critics, it hardly matters that “America First” in no way describes actual administration policy. After all, more than three years into the Trump presidency, our endless wars persist (and in some cases have even intensified); the nation’s various alliances and its empire of overseas bases remain intact; U.S. troops are still present in something like 140 countries; Pentagon and national security state spending continues to increase astronomically. Even so, the president does appear oblivious to the historical antecedent -- that is, the imperative of standing ready to deal with the next Hitler -- that finds concrete expression in these several manifestations of U.S. national security policy. No one has ever accused Donald Trump of possessing a profound grasp of history. Yet here his apparent cluelessness is especially telling.
Not least among the unofficial duties of any president is to serve as the authoritative curator of public memory. Through speeches, proclamations, and the laying of wreaths, presidents tell us what we should remember and how. Through their silence, they give us permission to forget the parts of our past that we prefer to forget. Himself born barely a year after V-E Day, Donald Trump seems to have forgotten World War II.New Signs for a New Time?
Yet let’s consider this admittedly uncongenial possibility: perhaps Trump is onto something. What if V-E Day is no more relevant to the present than the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812? What if, as a basis for policy, “Never Again” is today just as outmoded as “America First”? What if clinging to the canonical lessons of the war against Hitler impedes efforts to repair our nation and our planet?
An abiding problem with “Never Again” is that U.S. policymakers have never applied it to the United States. Since V-E Day, individuals and regimes deemed in Washington to be the spawn of Hitler and the Nazis have provided justification for successive administrations to accumulate arms, impose punishments, underwrite coups and assassination plots, and, of course, wage war endlessly. Beginning with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and China’s Mao Zedong, the list of malefactors that U.S. officials and militant journalists have likened to Hitler is a long one. They’ve ranged from North Korea’s Kim Il Sung in the 1950s to Cuba’s Fidel Castro in the 1960s to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the 1990s. And just to bring things up to date, let’s not overlook the ayatollahs governing present-day Iran.
Two decades after V-E Day, a succession of presidents deployed lessons ostensibly derived from the war against Hitler to justify the Vietnam War. John F. Kennedy described South Vietnam as "the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the Keystone of the arch, the finger in the dike." Failing to defend that country would allow "the red tide of Communism," as he put it, to sweep across the region much as appeasers had allowed the Nazi tide to sweep across Europe. "Everything I knew about history," Lyndon Johnson reflected, "told me that if I got out of Vietnam and let Ho Chi Minh run through the streets of Saigon, then I'd be doing exactly what [Neville] Chamberlain did in World War II," a reference, of course, to the Munich Agreement with Hitler, which that British prime minister so infamously labeled "peace in our time." Even as late as 1972, Richard Nixon was assuring the public that "an American defeat" in Vietnam "would encourage this kind of aggression all over the world."
Vietnam provides but one example among many of how viewing problems through the lens of World War II in Europe has obscured real situations and actual stakes on this planet. In short, the promiscuous use of the Hitler analogy has produced deeply flawed policy decisions, while also deceiving the American people. This has inhibited our ability to see the world as it actually is.
Overall, the approach to statecraft that grew out of V-E Day defined the ultimate purpose of U.S. policy in terms of resisting evil. That, in turn, provided all the justification needed for building up American military capabilities beyond compare and engaging in military action on a planetary scale.
In Washington, policymakers have shown little inclination to consider the possibility that the United States itself might be guilty of doing evil. In effect, the virtuous intentions implicit in “Never Again” inoculated the United States against the virus to which ordinary nations were susceptible. V-E Day seemingly affirmed that America was anything but ordinary.
Here, then, we arrive at one explanation for the predicament in which the United States now finds itself. In a recent article in the New York Times, journalist Katrin Bennhold wondered how it could be that, when it came to dealing with Covid-19, “the country that defeated fascism in Europe 75 years ago” now finds itself “doing a worse job protecting its citizens than many autocracies and democracies” globally.
Yet it might just be that events that occurred 75 years ago in Europe no longer have much bearing on the present. The country that defeated Hitler’s version of fascism (albeit with considerable help from others) has since allowed its preoccupation with fascists, quasi-fascists, and other ne’er-do-wells to serve as an excuse for letting other things slip, particularly here in the homeland.
The United States is fully capable of protecting its citizens. Yet what the present pandemic drives home is this: doing so, while also creating an environment in which all citizens can flourish, is going to require a radical revision of what we still, however inaccurately, call “national security” priorities. This does not mean turning a blind eye to mass murder. Yet the militarization of U.S. policy that occurred in the wake of V-E Day has for too long distracted attention from more pressing matters, not least among them creating a way of life that is equitable and sustainable. This perversion of priorities must now cease.
So, yes, let’s mark this V-E Day anniversary with all due solemnity. Yet 75 years after the collapse of the Third Reich, the challenge facing the United States is not “Never Again.” It’s “What Now?”
For the moment at least, Tom and I are still around. Yet “our times” -- the period that began when World War II ended -- have run their course. The “new times” upon which the nation has now embarked will pose their own distinctive challenges, as the Covid-19 pandemic makes unmistakably clear. Addressing those challenges will require leaders able to free themselves from a past that has become increasingly irrelevant.
This article has been republished with permission from TomDispatch.
Syrian refugees receive foodstuff through the iris scan service launched by the World Food Program at Tazweed centre in the Al-Zaatari refugee camp in Mafraq, Jordan, near the border with Syria, November 23, 2016. Picture taken November 23, 2016. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
Last month, Foreign Policy published a report that stirred the debate on U.S. Middle East policy. It claimed “the Biden administration is reconsidering its priorities” in Syria and may conduct “a full withdrawal of U.S. troops.” Now, legacy media is debating the future of American involvement in Syria. Missing from this discussion is the suffering that involvement has caused.
Writing for the New York Times, retired general Kenneth McKenzie warns “it’s not time for our troops to leave” Syria. Mere talk of a withdrawal (let alone actually withdrawing), he argues, is “seriously damaging to U.S. interests.” It “gives hope to Tehran” that Iran might rival American influence in the Middle East — which is bad, supposedly. Why Iran has less of a right to influence its own region than people thousands of miles away is unclear.
McKenzie also argues that American troops must remain to “secure the prisons holding ISIS fighters.” Without boots on the ground, militants might escape and the Islamist group could “rejuvenate itself.” McKenzie doesn’t believe the Syrian government could prevent prison breaks on its own, or even with Russian and Iranian support.
This argument is highly speculative. If the Americans leave, imprisoned ISIS fighters might escape. And, if enough do, they might rebuild their organization into a force too formidable for Syrian forces to handle. Multiple unlikely contingencies must materialize to even warrant taking this reasoning seriously.
But McKenzie’s claim suffers a more fundamental problem. It confuses the cause for the antidote. Everyone from Noam Chomsky to Rand Paul knows American intervention created the conditions that allowed ISIS to grow. Bombing Arab nations to smithereens, toppling their leaders, and starving governments through sanctions and outright theft generated a power vacuum. As did deploying troops indefinitely, which prevented states like Syria from maintaining territorial integrity and establishing the mechanisms for self-governance.
McKenzie believes the Syrian government is simply too weak to quell the increasingly small threat an ISIS in retreat poses. Assuming he’s correct, it’s worth asking why that’s the case. The facts again point to American intervention.
Nearly 13 years into its ongoing civil war, Syria is in tatters. Once a middle-income nation with respectable living standards, it’s now the poorest country on Earth. More than 90% of Syrians live below the international poverty line of $1.90 per day. Their paychecks are worthless, with the Syrian pound losing virtually all of its relative value since the war began.
It’s not all America’s fault. The Syrian government undoubtedly bears significant blame for the humanitarian crisis. But American sanctions hamstring it from improving matters. The infamous Caesar Act targets anyone who "engages in a significant transaction" with the Syrian government. Signed into law by Donald Trump, this heinous policy effectively precludes the international community from helping Syria rebuild.
A bipartisan but overwhelmingly Democratic coalition of lawmakers recently voted against slapping new sanctions on Syria. Unfortunately, for every one of them, there were 12 supporters of the legislation. Dubbed the Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act, it would extend the sunset of the Caesar sanctions by eight years. The bill would also expand the list of proscribed transactions.
But there’s more. Years ago, with America’s blessing, Turkish-backed militias stole capital from over 1,000 factories in the city of Aleppo alone. This assault on the productive forces of Syria’s industrial hub left its economy in tatters. But that’s not all the United States and its allies stole. America’s occupying troops routinely commandeer Syrian wheat and petroleum. Trump admitted as much, saying that soldiers “were staying in Syria to secure oil resources.”
With the United States systematically extracting or destroying its revenue sources, the Syrian state is starving. To the extent it can’t defend itself from ISIS, that’s a big reason why. More American intervention isn’t what Syria needs. It needs the United States’ boot off of its neck.
In these discussions of states and militants, we mustn’t lose sight of what matters most: the people. American militarism in Syria has wrought dire human costs. It has plunged Syrians into the depths of unimaginable despair. Over 80% of them are food-insecure and a similar proportion lack sustained access to electricity. Many enjoy just one hour of it per day. Without electricity, you can’t refrigerate food and it rots. That causes shortages. People have taken to eating out of the garbage.
McKenzie seems to care little about this immense suffering. And why would he? His job as a general was to project American military might, whatever the costs, a position he apparently continues as a guest writer for The New York Times.
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Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 1952; President Barack Obama, at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, 2014.
President Trump's latest comments criticizing NATO and the ensuing media reaction obscure the fact that Americans have long held dissenting opinions on the U.S. relationship to European security.
As has happened all too often throughout the Trump era, the heat of escalating rhetoric on the part of the 45th President and his committed adversaries has distracted from the more substantive foreign policy debate.
Today, the U.S-European security relationship has never been more sacrosanct, at least in the mind's eye of the national security establishment and their allies in the mainstream press. Yet historically, the range of debate and criticism of this ostensibly sacred pact has been far more open than nostalgia or the modern commentariat may suggest.
Throughout American involvement in NATO, the nation's national security elites, members of Congress, commentators, and, yes, presidents, too, have all challenged the contours of commitment to the organization and its members at one time or another. Furthermore, they did so when Western countries faced a significantly larger Soviet military deployed deep into the heart of Central Europe.
During the early Cold War, the nature of American involvement in the alliance and its commitment to staff Europe with a permanent garrison were not seen as beyond question, even by American officials in positions of authority. In fact, American Cold War architects sold an American garrison in Europe as a temporary measure meant to shore up allies still licking their wounds from the Second World War. In congressional testimony concerning the ratification of the NATO treaty, Sen. Bourke B. Hickenlooper (R-Iowa) pressed Secretary of State Dean Acheson if he thought the treaty meant that the U.S. would leave "substantial numbers of troops over there." An indignant Acheson responded, "[t]he answer to that question, Senator, is a clear and absolute 'No.'"
Even as Acheson's assurances to Congress proved hollow, NATO's first commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, while supportive of NATO's legal mechanisms of collective security, believed that America's garrison and material aid were temporary. Eisenhower warned that if "in 10 years, all American troops stationed in Europe for national defense purposes have not been returned to the United States, then this whole project will have failed."
In Congress, the extent of American military involvement remained a persistent issue for the Republican Right. Be they principled noninterventionists or Asia First unilateralists, the extent of American troop presence in Europe remained a contested issue. Retired Army officer Bonner Fellers, writing in a July 1949 issue of Human Events, a conservative magazine, summed up the widely agreed-upon position of these dissenters. While Fellers believed that the NATO treaty had "enormous psychological value," as it served as a "symbol of unity" and deterrence, he did not think that that should translate into a massive and permanent military garrison in Western Europe.
Fellers revisited the issue two years later in an article for Human Events, which was read into the Congressional Record. Rather than see the American European garrison as a deterrent, Fellers asserted that it could be viewed as a provocation and argued that the "presence of our forces on the Rhine gives Stalin a visible symbol, a unifying agent which tends to enlist the support of all Russians behind the Kremlin."
It is important to note that Fellers was hardly a dove. Instead, he was a committed anti-communist who loathed the Soviet Union and supported a nuclear deterrence on the cheap, a Fortress America 2.0. Yet, he, like many within the Republican Right, did not allow their ideological priors to automatically dictate a desire for endless security commitments to Western Europe.
On Capitol Hill, Fellers's views were common and supported by conservative Republicans who saw an American military garrison as an expensive handout to allies whose rebuilt economies could shoulder their defense, all while providing little deterrent effect. In 1953, speaking on the issue of America's military mission in Europe, Rep. Lawrence H. Smith (R-WI) asked rhetorically, "[w]here is the threat of military aggression?"
According to Smith, after returning from a fact-finding mission in Europe, his subcommittee on Europe reported that "there was no fear of communism in the hearts and the minds of the people there." The sentiments espoused by Fellers and Smith persisted in pockets of the Republican Right throughout the early Cold War despite the ideological demands of the era.
During the final decades of the Cold War, opposition to the presence of an American military garrison in Western Europe and the continuation of military aid emanated primarily from the left wing of the Democratic Party as a new generation of Democrats took office and sought to rein military spending and commitments. On Capitol Hill, Democrats attempted to force American troop level cuts in Europe in the House in 1988, and the Senate in 1990.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the horseshoe of opposition to maintaining the status quo thickened as a body of conservative Republicans joined progressive Democrats in opposing NATO expansion, first in 1994 and then in 1999. While both votes failed, and the United States maintained a sizeable garrison in Europe, the opposition to outdated Cold War paradigms remained and flowed freely, untainted by the scurrilous charge of echoing "Putin talking points."
Indeed, even as late as November 2016, President Obama mirrored the sentiments of then President-elect Donald Trump in stating that “[i]f Greece can meet this NATO commitment, all our NATO allies should be able to do so."
This latest fervor has, as all too often now, completely ignored these historical debates around American foreign policy commitments, creating in their passions an ahistorical sense of policy inevitability. If Americans past and present, from presidents on down, could question the contours of American security commitments and did so in far more perilous times, then so should we.
ISIS attacks in Iraq and Syria remain at all-time lows despite fears that Middle East tensions related to the war in Gaza could lead to a resurgence of the group, according to a new report by independent U.S. government watchdogs.
In 2020, ISIS carried out as many as 200 attacks each month in Iraq and Syria. It now claims fewer than 40 monthly strikes. Despite calls by ISIS leaders to target Israeli and Western interests, the watchdogs report that the group now likely lacks the “intent and capability to direct attacks against the U.S. homeland.”
The report paints a dismal picture of the once-powerful militant group’s operations in Iraq and Syria, where it controlled huge swathes of territory in the mid-2010s. “ISIS’s capacity to conduct insurgent activities remained severely degraded in Iraq and Syria,” the watchdogs note, adding that the group now carries out fewer attacks near cities.
The group’s operations now appear more akin to a failing crime syndicate than a powerful terror group. Crackdowns on ISIS finances have left the organization unable to consistently pay its fighters, according to the report. Even ISIS leaders are paid only “sporadically” with funds drawn from buried caches of money hidden in locations across Iraq and Syria.
The inspectors general of the State Department, Defense Department, and USAID authored the report, which is part of a congressionally mandated series of updates on Operation Inherent Resolve, America’s campaign to defeat ISIS.
American cooperation with Syrian Kurdish forces has been largely uninterrupted, according to the report, while Iraq-based operations have been reduced due to the political and operational consequences related to U.S. support for Israel’s war in Gaza, according to the report.
Iran-aligned militias carried out at least 134 attacks on U.S. forces between the outset of the Gaza war in early October and December 2023, forcing U.S. troops in Iraq to divert “resources and attention” away from the counter-ISIS mission. U.S. military advisers “cancelled [sic] or delayed engagements with key Iraqi leaders pending a reassessment of security conditions,” the report notes.
On the political side, Iraqi Prime Minister Muhammad Shia al-Sudani has faced increasing pressure to negotiate an end to the U.S. troop presence in the country, and talks aimed at securing an American withdrawal began in late January.
The report provides useful data points amid debates over whether and how to withdraw U.S. troops from the region following the success of the anti-ISIS campaign.
Some analysts contend that a hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria could lead to a resurgence of the group. As Mona Yacoubian of the U.S. Institute of Peace recently told RS, it is not clear whether Kurdish forces in Syria could protect detention camps holding thousands of ISIS fighters in the country’s northeast. If the fighters escaped, they “could quickly pose a major threat to global interests,” Yacoubian argues.
Efforts to reform and repatriate fighters held at these camps have continued despite regional tensions, according to the report. Roughly 1,700 detainees returned home in the last three months of 2023, leaving the camps’ population at 47,000, a number that includes fighters and their families.
On the other side of the debate, experts see a continued U.S. presence in Syria as part of America’s “endless wars” in the Middle East and argue that America’s military deployments in the country help fuel ISIS recruitment efforts and expose U.S. troops to unnecessary dangers. The recent deaths of three U.S. soldiers based near the Jordanian-Syrian border highlights these concerns.
The politics surrounding a potential withdrawal will likely heat up over the next year. While a recent Senate bill calling for a U.S. withdrawal from Syria failed in a 13-84 vote, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has long expressed an interest in pulling U.S. troops out of the country.
Trump’s 2018 attempt to withdraw from Syria was foiled by his own appointees. But if the former president wins reelection in November, it’s hard to ignore the possibility that he could pull it off the second time around.