Why would an eighteen year old kid – and millions like him – go to war and be willing to do something so incredibly dangerous? Yes, because his country called on him. Yes, to fight for the defense of his country and its freedoms. Yes, because he was trained to follow orders and do no other. But he also did it because millions of other people -- Germans, Italians, and Japanese, in this case -- got what they thought they wanted.
I was touring this aviation museum with my wife's uncle Hal. Hal is 91 years and flew P-51 Mustangs in the South Pacific during World War II. He still flies at 91 in his two seater experimental plane! After we visited the museum, we wondered how it is possible that so many people in highly “civilized” countries could have been so drastically misled by their leaders. How could they have possible believed all they were told?
Well, the answers are complex and full of psychological, sociological, economic, and political nuances. Maybe it is an oversimplification, but I think a big part of what happened is that they bought into the ideas they were being sold without taking the time and making the effort to consider how those ideas would be brought about. They were so excited and comforted about the potential end that they never seriously considered the means.
Therefore, they bought into the legitimate ideas of "honor," and "glory," and "patriotism." They believed their leaders could lead them to "recapture a glorious heritage," or "honor the memory of their ancestors," or "re-establish national pride." Only a few, however, saw past the soothing rhetoric to the implicit, and eventually explicit, evil means to achieve those goals – the persecution and arrest of dissenters, racist policies, invasion of neighboring countries, and mass murder in death camps. They failed to recognize, until it was too late, the tools their leaders used to implement their promises: Half-truths that led to outright lies, warnings that led to fear mongering, discrimination that led to persecution, and threats that led to violence. The end result (in case you haven't seen the movie) was tens of millions dead, hundreds of millions of displaced, leveled cities, destroyed countries, a changed map, the near end of European civilization, and further oppression in Eastern Europe for decades. The promised ideas certainly didn’t hold water for long, but, as has been noted with tongue in cheek, at least there was an autobahn that was the model for American interstates and the trains ran on time.
Politicians still speak of big ideas. This is good. We need vision. We need big ideas. We need what those big ideas promise. However, the means to achieve the big ideas are important. Furthermore, everything has a price. Whether it is the promise of all kinds of “free” stuff, of being “great again,” of being “safe,” being a “world leader,” “taking back America,” “returning” to a supposed divinely “chosen nation,”, semi-theocratic past, or even a bland generic expression of “hope,” we must insist on answers to at least two questions:
1. What do you mean by that big idea? Define what you are saying.
2. How will that big idea be achieved? Give specifics.
Now, am I drawing a direct parallel between Italian Fascism, German Nazism, Japanese Nationalism and current American politics? Not necessarily. We have lots of checks and balances in place that none of those countries did. Moreover, our historical, political, and economic situations are vastly different. However . . . Be careful what you wish for, especially when it is ill defined or not defined at all. Be careful what you wish, especially when the how is never explained. Be careful what you wish for, especially when substance and content is pushed aside in favor of sound bites, slogans, and juvenile insults. I think we are all mad at the system and want change, but . . . Be careful what you wish for, both left and right!