The art of shaping memory
How best to describe the recently completed allied commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of France? Two words come immediately to mind: heartfelt and poignant. The aged D-Day veterans gathering for what was probably the last time richly deserved every bit of praise bestowed on them. Yet one particular refrain that has become commonplace in this age of Donald Trump was absent from the proceedings. I’m referring to “fake news.” In a curious collaboration, Trump and the media, their normal relationship one of mutual loathing, combined forces to falsify the history of World War II. Allow me to explain.
In a stirring presentation, Donald Trump -- amazingly -- rose to the occasion and captured the spirit of the moment, one of gratitude, respect, even awe. Ever so briefly, the president sounded presidential. In place of his usual taunts and insults, he managed a fair imitation of Ronald Reagan’s legendary “Boys of Pointe Du Hoc” speech of 1984. “We are gathered here on Freedom’s Altar,” Trump began -- not exactly his standard introductory gambit.
Then, in a rare display of generosity toward people who were neither Republicans nor members of his immediate family, Trump acknowledged the contributions of those who had fought alongside the G.I.s at Normandy, singling out Brits, Canadians, Poles, Norwegians, Australians, and members of the French resistance for favorable mention. He related moving stories of great heroism and paid tribute to the dwindling number of D-Day veterans present. And as previous presidents had done on similar occasions marking D-Day anniversaries, he placed the events of that day in a reassuringly familiar historical context:
“The blood that they spilled, the tears that they shed, the lives that they gave, the sacrifice that they made, did not just win a battle. It did not just win a war. Those who fought here won a future for our nation. They won the survival of our civilization. And they showed us the way to love, cherish, and defend our way of life for many centuries to come.”
Nor was that all. “Today, as we stand together upon this sacred Earth,” Trump concluded,
“We pledge that our nations will forever be strong and united. We will forever be together. Our people will forever be bold. Our hearts will forever be loyal. And our children, and their children, will forever and always be free.”
Strong and united, together, bold, loyal, and free... forever.
It was, in its way, an astonishing performance, all the more so because it was entirely out of character. It was as if Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had published a book of sonnets or National Security Advisor John Bolton had performed a serviceable rendition of “Nessun dorma” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial -- wonderful in its way, but given the source startling as well.
Selective Remembering and Convenient Forgetting
If the purpose of Trump’s speech was to make his listeners feel good, he delivered. Yet in doing so, he also relieved them of any responsibility for thinking too deeply about the event being commemorated.
Now, let me just say that I hold no brief for Josef Stalin or the Soviet Union, or Marxism-Leninism. Yet you don’t need to be an apologist for Communism to acknowledge that the Normandy invasion would never have succeeded had it not been for the efforts of Marshal Stalin’s Red Army. For three full years before the first wave of G.I.s splashed ashore at Omaha Beach, Russian troops had been waging a titanic struggle along a vast front in their own devastated land against the cream of the German military machine.
One data point alone summarizes the critical nature of the Soviet contribution: in May 1944, there were some 160 German divisions tied up on the Eastern Front. That represented more than two-thirds of the armed might of the Third Reich, 160 combat divisions that were therefore unavailable for commitment against the Anglo-American forces desperately trying to establish a foothold in Normandy.
As has been the custom for quite some time now the German chancellor, representing the defeated enemy, attended the D-Day anniversary festivities as an honored guest. Angela Merkel’s inclusion testifies to an admirable capacity to forgive without forgetting.
Russian President Vladimir Putin did not, however, make the guest list. In liberal circles, Putin has, of course, made himself persona non grata. Yet excluding him obviated any need for Trump and other dignitaries in attendance to acknowledge, even indirectly, the Soviet role in winning World War II. Although the Red Army was never known for finesse or artfulness, it did kill an estimated four million of Merkel’s countrymen, who were thereby not on hand to have a go at killing Donald Trump’s countrymen.
If war is ultimately about mayhem and murder, then the Soviet Union did more than any other belligerent to bring about the final victory against Nazi Germany. Without for a second slighting the courage and contributions of our Canadian, Polish, Norwegian, and Australian comrades -- bless them all -- it was the Red Army that kept General Dwight Eisenhower’s expeditionary command from being pushed back into the Channel. In other words, thank God for the godless communists.
So, however heartfelt and poignant, the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings was an exercise in selective remembering and convenient forgetting. It was, in other words, propaganda or, in contemporary parlance, fake news. The deception -- for that’s what it was -- did not escape the notice of Russian commentators. Yet members of the American media, otherwise ever alert to Trump’s sundry half-truths and outright deceptions, chose to ignore or more accurately endorse this whopper.
Time to Get Over the Hangover?
How much does such selective remembering and convenient forgetting matter? A lot, in my estimation. Distorting the past distorts the present and sows confusion about the problems we actually face.
For a small illustration of the implications of this particular elision of history we need look no further than the D-Day anniversary-inspired ruminations of New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. The purpose of his column, which appeared on June 7th, was to spin the spin. Stephens was intent on reinforcing Trump’s carefully edited interpretation of World War II in order to further his own version of a crusading and militarized American foreign policy agenda.
Now, the war against Adolf Hitler occurred a considerable time ago. The war against Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein is a far more recent memory. Which should have greater relevance for U.S. policy today? On that score, Stephens is quite clear: it’s the “lessons” of World War II, not of the reckless invasion of Iraq, that must pertain, not only today but in perpetuity. Sure, the Iraq War turned out to be a bit of a headache. “But how long,” Stephens asks, “should the hangover last?” Time to take an Alka-Seltzer and get back to smiting evildoers, thereby keeping alive the ostensible tradition of the Greatest Generation.
“If we really wanted to honor the sacrifices of D-Day,” Stephens writes, “we would do well to learn again what it is the Allies really fought for.” According to him, they fought “not to save the United States or even Britain,” but to liberate all of Europe; not to defeat Nazi Germany, “but to eradicate a despicable ideology”; and “not to subsume our values under our interests but to define our interests according to our values.”
Now, only someone oblivious to the actual experience of war could subscribe to such a noble list of “what the Allies really fought for.” Perhaps more to the point, in expounding on what inspired the Allied war effort, Stephens chose to overlook the fact that the ranks of those Allies included the Soviet Union. Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and their generals would not have considered this a casual omission. They thanked their lucky stars for the Soviet Union’s participation.
Furthermore, Soviet leaders from Josef Stalin on down entertained their own distinct ideas about the war’s purposes. They adhered to and were intent on exporting an ideology hardly less despicable than that of the Nazis. Their purpose was not to liberate Europe, but to absorb large chunks of it into an expanded Soviet sphere of influence. And while correlating interests with values might have appealed to the Soviet dictator, the values to which he subscribed excluded just about every item in the American Bill of Rights. So if we are serious about identifying common war aims, “what the Allies really fought for” focused on one thing only: destroying the Third Reich.
Just like Trump, however, Stephens airbrushes the Soviet Union out of the picture. In doing so, he sanitizes the past. His motive is anything but innocent. Having concocted his own spurious version of “what the Allies really fought for,” Stephens pivots to the present moment and discovers -- wouldn’t you know it -- that we are right back in those terrible days of the 1930s when the Western democracies hesitated to confront the rising threat posed by Adolf Hitler.
Seventy years after D-Day, the world is in disarray. And the West, Stephens charges, is sitting on its hands. Syria is a mess. So is Venezuela. Kim Jong-Un, “the world’s most sinister dictator,” still rules North Korea. In Cuba, China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, dissidents languish behind bars. Nobody “other than a few journalists and activists” seems to care. Everywhere indifference prevails.
And we’ve seen this movie before, he insists:
“This is the West almost as it looked in the 1930s: internally divided and inward looking, hesitant in the face of aggression, incanting political pieties in which it no longer believed -- and so determined not to repeat the mistakes of the last war that it sleepwalked its way into the next.”
Now, in those circles where neoconservatives congregate and call for the United States to embark upon some new crusade, this analysis undoubtedly finds favor. But as a description of actually existing reality, it’s about as accurate as Trump’s own periodic blathering about the state of the world.
Is the West today “inward looking”? Then how do we explain the presence of Western forces in Afghanistan, of all places, for nigh onto 20 years? Is the West “hesitant in the face of aggression”? How does that charge square with actions taken by the United States and its allies in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere? When it comes to war, some might suggest that our problem of late has not been hesitancy, but unending hubris and the absence of even minimal due diligence. More often than not, when it comes to aggressive behavior, we’re the ones spoiling for a fight. Take General Kenneth McKenzie, the latest bellicose head of U.S. Central Command, for example, who is now plugging for “a return to a larger U.S. military presence in the Middle East” with Iran in mind. Don’t accuse him of hesitance.
The prescription that Stephens offers reduces to this: just as in June 1944, brave men with guns, preferably speaking English, will put things right and enable freedom and democracy to prevail. We need only gird our loins and make the effort.
It’s all very inspiring really. Yet Stephens leaves out something important: this time we won’t be able to count on some other nation with a large and willing army to do most of the fighting and dying on our behalf.
Andrew Bacevich is a TomDispatch regular. His new book The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory (Metropolitan Books) is due out in January.