A revisionist notion that has never gotten any serious traction, no matter how fervently the children of the 1930s isolationists keep putting it on the table, is the one arguing that America entered World War II under false pretenses. The argument isn't that the attack on Pearl Harbor didn’t take place — a whopper of that magnitude would have to await the historic breakthroughs in human credulity that have given us a staged moon landing and 9/11 as an American plot. It's that — or so they keep insisting — FDR knew about the attack in advance and kept his mouth shut because he wanted us in the war.
Most of us don’t want to think that. And as our minds roll back to Hitler, and the Holocaust, and the rape of Nanking, the idea feels both unlikely and irrelevant. It’s hard to think of the generation of Americans now well into its twilight as both the Greatest Generation and a bunch of patsies.
I’m writing this because I’ve just read Roger Ebert’s review of Green Zone, which he calls “one more element in the new narrative that has gradually emerged about Iraq, the dawning realization that we went to war under false pretenses.” I’m not sure that realization is just now dawning; to a lot of people the idea of hidden weapons of mass destruction seemed shaky at the time, both as a fact on the ground and as a justification for the invasion. Some of us who weren’t outraged by the invasion thought Tony Blair was making a far better case for it than George W. Bush was; Saddam Hussein was the sort of sadistically brutal, totally untrustworthy, aggrandizing tyrant who poisons not only a country but a region, and who must be removed if that region is ever to function in a way approximating normality. The USA has a history — and perhaps we should be proud we're so pacific — of letting such tyrants be, even doing business with them. Unless they’re communists, or attack us first. Bush really had to strain to implicate Saddam in the 9/11 attacks, but as he strained he winked — though that was probably just my imagination. Where Bush lost a lot of us wasn’t in going into Iraq; it was doing it in such a half-assed way: like a drunk frat pledge sneaking into the dean’s office, he had no idea what to do next once he got there.
How important are pretexts to the wars fought in response to them? There’s always some incident, some insult, some intolerability that lights the kindling. American went into Vietnam with both feet after the North Vietnamese attacked two of our destroyers in what’s remembered as the Tonkin Gulf incident. But the second attack — the one that saw America leap to its feet sputtering “That’s it; we’ve had enough!” — never happened. The destroyer Turner Joy was not attacked for hours on end by North Vietnamese torpedo boats; in rough weather, the destroyer’s radar operators were misreading the blips on their radar. No one knew this with more clarity than James Bond Stockdale, who was overhead in an F-8 with orders to blow the nonexistent torpedo boats out of the water. He’d eventually receive the Medal of Honor for his valor as a POW. He attempted suicide, preferring death to what he saw as the likely alternative, which was continuing to be tortured until he eventually buckled under and revealed that he knew America was in the war under a false pretext. Stockdale had no desire in be exploited for propaganda; he was in the war with both feet himself, however it began.
Wars aren’t about the reasons they began. World War I wasn’t fought to avenge a dead archduke. If Green Zone wishes to be about the pretense that got us mired in Iraq, that’s fine, that’s its business. But I’m glad Ebert gives it four stars because it succeeds as a thriller, not as a revelation. It’s easy to overestimate revelations, both as to the extent they tell what we didn’t already know and as to the extent we care.