As the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Japan approaches, it is worth pondering the concept of unconditional surrender – a policy often regarded by Catholic critics of the bombing as the real reason the United States was “forced” to use nuclear weapons. Whether the Truman administration’s insistence upon unconditional surrender really was the crux of the affair, it certainly seems that since 1945 unconditional surrender has become the norm in American discourse about war and peace, rather than the exception. Indeed, thanks to the triumphalist mythology which grew up following World War II, many Americans now take for granted that only a complete regime change in the opposing nation – along with the forcible Americanization of the defeated enemy – counts as a true military victory.
Why else, for instance, would George H.W. Bush be criticized by hawkish pundits for not “finishing the job” during Desert Storm? According to such critics, merely driving the Iraqi military from Kuwait was not enough. Supposedly, the US was obliged not only to defeat Sadaam Hussein’s government but to destroy it and create a new one. Cost was no object. The enormous expenditure of lives and treasure such a grand agenda necessarily entailed did not seem to trouble the would-be nation-builders, who would get their way under the more reckless administration of Bush’s son.
If we use the term total surrender instead of unconditional surrender, perhaps the point is clearer: The fixation upon total surrender represents an embrace of the ethos of total war, and it is hard not to see a connection between such an ethos and the tendency toward totalitarian government. In any event, to treat unconditional surrender as normative is to reject the spirit of just war doctrine, as perennially taught by the Church. “Victory” and “conquest” are not necessarily synonymous.
Moreover, as the British writer Aldous Huxley observed, a spirit of restraint has always played a major role in defining Western civilization, especially in the wake of the disastrous Thirty Years’ War:
For more than a hundred years the politicians and generals of Europe consciously resisted the temptation to use their military resources to the limits of destructiveness or (in the majority of conflicts) to go on fighting until the enemy was totally annihilated. They were aggressors, of course, greedy for profit and glory; but they were also conservatives, determined at all costs to keep their world intact, as a going concern.
It is worth noting that Huxley does not romanticize old-time conservatives, “greedy for profit and glory” as they were. What he does instead is recognize such admittedly flawed figures as being preferable to totalitarians, who would sooner see the whole world end than grant any concessions to the opposition at a negotiating table. For the spirit of restraint suddenly collapsed throughout Europe once warfare became charged with messianic ideology:
For the last thirty years there have been no conservatives; there have been only nationalistic radicals of the right and nationalistic radicals of the left. The last conservative statesman was the fifth Marquess of Lansdowne; and when he wrote a letter to the Times, suggesting that the First World War should be concluded with a compromise, as most of the wars of the eighteenth century had been, the editor of that once conservative journal refused to print it.
As many readers are no doubt aware, American participation in the First World War was motivated by a sentiment directly opposed to that of the Marquess of Lansdowne, by the call to “make the world safe for democracy” – whatever the cost. Under the leadership of President Wilson, America took part in the dismantlement and deconstruction of what remained of Old Europe, a Europe defined by Catholicism. Wilson’s good intentions paved the way not only for the Nazis and Communists and all the wretched destruction those movements entailed, but also for today’s aggressively secular humanist European Union.
Nor can Americans take for granted that their own communities will remain safe for much longer from the forces represented by the total war mindset. For it has become increasingly obvious that totalitarianism has been driving not only American foreign policy, but also the culture war. Clearly, many activists and protestors believe it would be better for America to burn to the ground than for any part of it to persist tainted by lingering vestiges of “white supremacy” – i.e., Western identity.
And their vindictive program is eerily reminiscent of the cultural and social engineering which the American regime is in the habit of inflicting upon conquered opponents. Ironically, then, those hawks who mistake America for the world’s savior share at least one practice in common – “democratization” – with the anti-Americans who hate it.
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