When the United States joined the Second World War in December 1941, it did so with racially segregated armed forces. Ubiquitous, cruelly irrational discrimination against non-white soldiers was legal and largely taken for granted. Little of this had changed by the time the United States led the Allies to victory in 1945. It began to change only in 1948, when President Truman ordered the desegregation of the US Navy.
Therefore, if Hitler had only postponed his attack on Poland, and if the Japanese had only postponed theirs on Pearl Harbor, for a decade or so, the Allies would have been able to field armies incomparably more worthy to take up a fight against racist tyranny.
Of course, by then they would have been facing nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles.
In the event, the enemy was not so prudent, and in 1941, Americans did not have the option to wait until they themselves were without sin before going to war. Though there were appeasers and pacifists and outright enemies among them who urged further phoney peace initiatives and concessions, the Second World War was not an elective war any more than the present war is. The West had already waited far too long. Fifty million lives too long, as it turned out. A blighted generation too long. A Holocaust too long.
The summons could not be refused and it could not be procrastinated. It said: come as you are, ready or not. For it is usually the aggressor, not the victim, who gets to choose when and where a war will break out. And so sixteen million young Americans, who had not been ready, rushed into the war with all their hangups and their shameful flaws and their parochialism and rough edges on display for all to see and sneer at. They had not asked for this to happen, and some of them made terrible mistakes. And some committed crimes – for among any sixteen million human beings chosen at random there will be thousands of murderers and tens of thousands of rapists and criminals of every kind. And that is how America saved the world.
They had the moral high ground. Yes, thousands of American criminals in uniform committed crimes in the liberated countries (and for that matter in allied countries). American bigots in uniform daily committed what would today be called hate crimes. American antisemites in power sent Jewish refugees back to their deaths and refused to attack the Auschwitz death camp from the air. Yes, they all shamed themselves and their country. But for all that, America did not lose an inch of the moral high ground that it had claimed when going to war. The idea that it could is insane.
Imagine that someone at the time had written about any of those shameful acts in the way that Andrew Sullivan has about the Abu Ghraib scandal:
But I cannot disguise that the moral core of the case for war has been badly damaged. It would be insane to abort our struggle there now because of these obscenities. But … what this … nightmare has done is rob us of much of this moral high ground – and not just symbolically or in the eyes of others. But actually and in the eyes of ourselves.
Of course it hasn't. Crimes have been committed: those responsible will be punished. Apart from that, what has happened here is that a sophisticated weapons system of which we were rightly proud, turned out to have a flaw and has harmed people against whom it was not aimed. Regrettably, this happens sometimes in war. Remember, this was a come-as-you-are war. Of course it must be investigated urgently, and the level of the system at which the flaw occurred must be identified, and improvements must be made so that it does not happen again. But there is no more significance to the affair than that. Most people understand this. Those who were morally opposed to the war of course still oppose it. Some (not all) of them are engaging in the same orgy of Schadenfreude and self-vindication as they do every time anything bad happens to America – including the occasions when American bombs, despite all the care that is taken, go astray and kill innocents. But very few who have believed until now that the liberation of Iraq and the broader war on terror are morally right, will be convinced by the Abu Ghraib affair that America is now a bad guy.
Fortunately, not everyone has a weakness for wallowing in completely imaginary guilt. Go flagellate yourself if you must, Andrew, but leave America out of it.