Jonah Goldberg

Regardless, Churchill and Great Britain didn't quite take the firm stand against "torture" that Obama and Sullivan suggest. During the war, the Brits ran an interrogation center, "the Cage," in one of London's fanciest neighborhoods, where they worked over 3,573 captured Germans, sometimes brutally. The Free French movement, headquartered in London, savagely beat detainees under the nose of British authorities. From 1945 to 1947, Col. Stephens himself ran the Bad Nenndorf prison near Hanover, Germany, where Soviet and Nazi prisoners were treated far more brutally than those at Guantanamo Bay. Stephens was court-martialed, and cleared, for some of the alleged atrocities.

Of course, none of this remotely made Britain "equivalent" to Nazi Germany.

Regardless of the debatable facts, the real problem is this idea that "taking shortcuts" erodes the character of a people. One hears this constantly, but it is almost invariably asserted rather than demonstrated.

First, this argument assumes society knows about the shortcuts. After all, if the shortcut in question is kept a secret, then it's hard to see how the "character of a people" will be corroded (or that such methods will be used as a "recruiting tool"). Alas, the idea that the government should be able to do things in secret to fight a war is out of vogue today.

The more significant shortcuts are the public ones people can't ignore. Churchill ordered the firebombing of Dresden just 12 weeks before the end of World War II. No one knows for sure how many civilians were burned alive, but tens of thousands surely were, in no small part to deliver a psychological blow to the Germans. If Churchill could have waterboarded a prisoner to avoid that -- or stop the Holocaust -- would one shortcut have been preferable to the other? Why? Or why not? Obama gives no sense he has an answer to such questions. You can ask the same questions about the shortcuts that flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Did these shortcuts erode the character of the American and British people? If so, how? And what does it say about the "greatest generation" Barack Obama invokes relentlessly? And, again, what of the shortcuts we don't know about?

Churchill was a heroic leader. He did right as best he could in a bloody mess of a war. But he made countless horrible-but-correct decisions in the process. For instance, he refused to warn residents of Coventry that the Nazis were going to bomb, lest he betray the secret that he was listening to Nazi cable traffic. After the war, he advocated the shortcut of summary executions of Nazi officials.

It might seem otherwise, but I'm not making the case for what some people see as torture. I'm simply noting that war is always about shortcuts, all are horrible, some are necessary. If Obama doesn't understand that, let's hope he never has to learn it.

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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