WASHINGTON -- Awash as we are in the cranky appraisals of our war in Iraq and the congressional projects to end it summarily, we have every reason to conclude that for some Americans a real war is not nearly as amusing as one produced in Hollywood. A real war is a lot more difficult to script than a war headed for the silver screen. Inopportune events take place. Even uncovenanted happenings occur. During World War II more than 14,000 American POWs died in German and Japanese hands. President Franklin Roosevelt had not anticipated such brutal treatment. Other unanticipated enormities took place, for instance, the dithering in the hedgerows of France after the D-Day landings. Still, no congressional investigations were convened to distract our leaders from bringing the war to a diplomatically viable conclusion.
Were Sen. Joseph Biden in the Senate during that ghastly war, I wonder how many of President Roosevelt's cabinet members the senator from Delaware would have fallen on? How many times would he demand the resignation of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson? How many congressional inquiries would the congressional minority have insisted on after atrocities were discovered, logistics bungled or battles lost? Surely the bombings of German cities were controversial. Would these bombings be called atrocities by a 1944 version of Sen. John Kerry? In fact during World War II the Allies suffered many controversies and setbacks. Yet the criticisms and recriminations were almost nonexistent in the Congress, and even the press was quiet. Revelations that might have comforted our enemies were downplayed even after the war.
My favorite examples of this self-discipline are to be found in David Reynolds' stupendous history of how Winston Churchill wrote his Nobel Prize-winning war memoirs, "In Command of History." In a word, Churchill censored himself. Working with the Labour government's cabinet secretary, Churchill passed over in silence many wartime successes. Revealing them even after the war might have weakened British national security. For instance, he never mentions the cracking of the German Enigma code or his low expectations for Dwight Eisenhower's presidency. Maybe today there are fussbudgets in the antiwar movement who would have Churchill's Nobel Prize withdrawn for deceiving readers, but at the outset of the Cold War the British had to contemplate the aggressive designs of the Soviet Union. Washington, doubtless, practiced similar deceptions.