World War II: A Good War or a Just War?

Prelude

“A just war” seems a contradiction in terms, apparently. A good war seems to be a phrase that is ambiguous; but to decide whether World War II is a ‘good war’ or a ‘just war’ may not be a simple exercise. The general perception is that World War II happened because of World War I or rather in spite of it. After fighting a war that was meant to end all wars, there was one more horrendous war and this ironic truth could be garnered from almost every phase of human history.

To speak about specifics, when Benito Mussolini and the fascists took control over Italy, Adolph Hitler and the Nazis followed suit in Germany. Both groups had expansionist designs of megalomaniacs. Besides, they were the most undependable treaty makers. This again is human history and the cause of wars. The Second World War became unavoidable perhaps for the same reasons which were spoken of at the time of the First World War. When we consider the net results of the World War II, there again we have the vicious circle continuing: the United States of America and the Soviet Union, became two super powers and therefore a cold war on a global scale sets in as if it was a necessary consequence.

Have the wars ended? No, not at all! Maybe, the worldwide scale is not there in actual warfare, but the sporadic battles between nations dotting the globe are intermittent and innumerable. When two individuals fight against each other, one becomes the victor and the other the vanquished, unless we become like Joseph Addison’s Sir Roger de Covereley, who always said that much has to be said on either side! However, a world war can boast of no real victors, only the vanquished.

The Zinn view

Howard Zinn in his thoroughly researched article, “Just and Unjust War”1 goes through a complete cycle of varying emotions. From the Catholic Church, to Marxism, not to forget, Erasmus, Mark Twain and Hellen Keller in between (a few more notables have also been quoted), Zinn finally concludes that we cannot avoid wars, but we might at least try to lessen their severity. The point here is that the author, considering the tumultuous times we live in, is not too sure that even this lessening is possible.

A new perspective – the Indian one

In the ancient Indian classic the Mahabharata, right at the war field of Kurukshetra, Arjuna, one of the five Pandava brothers asks Lord Krishna who was his own charioteer, the crucial question about the justification of fighting a war against his own cousins, the Kauravas. Lord Krishna advises Arjuna merely to do his Kshatriya’s (a fighter) duty and not to worry about the results. This enigmatic answer to Arjuna’s persistent queries is explained in great detail in the Bhagavad-Gita. We are also told that Arjuna had all the doubts that we ordinary human beings continue to have even today, though of course, the contexts have changed slightly. The ultimate revelation to Arjuna was Lord Krishna’s Viswaroopa. This can be explained as an image that encompassed the universe in its entirety. As ordinary mortals and without the immediate aid of deities that Arjuna was fortunate to have had, we can only speak of the expediencies of situations which involve war.

When we glance through the results of World War II, one is reminded of the famous lines of T.S.Eliot: In my beginning is my end…In my end is my beginning.2

The declaration that the Allies won the World War II and the Axis powers lost in it, maybe a simplistic historical reference, but if we delve a little deep into the conditions of nations after that terrible war, we might get at the thin line that divides victory and defeat.

Germany was the country that was completely routed and became two halves opposing each other for nearly four-and-a half decades. However, looking at this from another angle could one say that Germany too had victory in doing away with blood-thirsty despot? Great Britain was supposed to be on the winning side; but it became utterly bankrupt after that so called victory. The Britons very quickly had to start boasting that the sun never set on the British Empire. This is because many a nationalistic movement that originated in British colonies was prepared to fight against their erstwhile emperor. USSR also was on the winning side, but suffered terribly by losing nearly 20 million people in the war fields.

Japan realized the worst devastation through getting the two atom bombs that the US through on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which annihilated millions in minutes. USA might have been the only absolute victor because of its military might, but at what cost? USA became the world’s policeman and the corollary is the stark reality of 9/11. Also, will the world ever forget the atrocities of Vietnam? The blame game continues without any end in sight.

One can always make rough estimates of what happened when the final statistics of fatalities were available. It would not be incorrect to say that the loss of lives of US soldiers alone could be around 300,000. There is not much of a difference when you look at the statistics of the dead in the vanquished nations too. So, where then is the question of who has won the war?

Is there a silver lining after all?

There are people who talk about technological development and the spread of democracy, which might have been the optimistic silver lining that appeared in the clouds left behind by World War II. They also make a philosophic addition to this: in the conflict between good and evil, good suffers too suffers along with evil.

It might be appropriate to quote from the poem ‘Strange Meeting’ by Wilfred Owen, to end this essay:

The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled. 3

References

  1. Howard Zinn, 2007. Just and Unjust War. Web.
  2. T S Eliot, 2007, The Four Quartets. Web.
  3. Wilfred Owen, 2007, Strange Meeting. Web.