World War II, Chaos Theory, and Babies

Often we are told we owe our lives, or everything good about our lives, to people of the past. This makes some sense when it involves our parents, or people who actually had a hand in teaching us or shaping our characters, but usually what people are talking about when they say this is some war or another, usually one that happened before we were born. In America, this most often manifests itself in some platitude or another related to World War II, probably because it was the last war the US won that had any effect on American civilian life at all. The platitude is usually connected to advocacy of some present policy: why, if we don't (raise taxes, nationalize something or everything, reinstate the draft, invade Somecountry, gleefully incinerate the population of Somecountry's capital city in a nuclear holocaust, or otherwise present our willing anuses to Uncle Sam), we'll all be speaking German or Japanese by 2015 or… something.

More important than the fact that there are no mechanical laws of history, and thus that appealing to the events of WWII can tell us nothing of how to reach ends we may desire to reach in the present, is that we can not be said to owe the individuals who fought that war or any other. The men who fought these wars did so for reasons of their own – we did not yet exist and thus could not have possibly been a consideration for them, and even if we were, they certainly could not have consulted us. Perhaps they can be called the squeegee men of history.

More important still, it is not clear what kind of world would have resulted had they not gone to war, or had they lost. We can pontificate about the moral imperative to stop the fascists from ruling the world, but the fascists ruled the world already – all the powers that participated in the war were essentially fascist. In the post-war period, West Germany and Japan dispensed with fascism more quickly than the Allies; the Russians never dispensed with it at all. Perhaps we can take this to mean that a world ruled by Germany and Japan (if these powers ever could have actually conquered the world) would have recovered more quickly from totalitarian ideology. And perhaps not: perhaps the Germans and Japanese only saw the errors of fascism precisely because they were devastated in spite of the leadership of Great Men, where everyone else saw that their various versions of fascism "worked". But then maybe a world in which American and British fascists saw the destruction of their own countries, in spite of the leadership of their own Great Men, would have turned out better for Americans and British 60 years down the road, which is of course where we are now.

We can also say that it was important to stop the Holocaust, or the even worse crimes of the Japanese. While these things were horrible and any decent person would want to see them stopped, it's not clear that the world turned out better for the actual attempts to stop them. The Chinese and other Asian people traded Japanese horrors for immeasurably murderous home-grown regimes. The people of Eastern Europe – Jews and others there being the main target in the Nazis' genocidal schemes – were left to Soviet rule. While these fates were not necessarily worse than what may have been suffered under the Japanese and Nazis respectively, they weren't better; certainly not enough so to warrant apologism for a vastly destructive war. (please see the Author's Note at the end of the essay if you're contemplating a rebuttal to this point)

We must also take into account some understanding of chaos theory. Even if the immediate aftermath of a victory for the axis powers would have been worse "overall", or an earlier victory for the allies would have been better, we can not say how people would have reacted to very different circumstances over the course of 60 years to make the world better or worse by now. Perhaps some allied war casualties and concentration camp victims might have become dictators and made Hitler and Stalin look like puppies. Perhaps some German kid killed by allied bombing raids might have grown up to invent a highly affordable cure for cancer. There are countless less dramatic variables that, in the dynamics of human social intercourse, can amount to so much better or so much worse, and we simply can not account for how they might be affected by something so broadly affecting as a murderous regime or the lack of one; of victory or defeat in a total war.

There's one more, even more poignant point to be made. If you're under 70, chances are that you would not even exist if not for Hitler. If your parents had never met, or even conceived in a different year, month, week, day, hour, or second – in conditions different in any infinitesimal way – from when and where they conceived you, you would not exist to owe anyone anything. Let's say there were roughly 2 billion people in the world in 1930. Assuming roughly even gender distribution, that is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible couples over the next 20 or so years. The Slut Factor alone is enough to throw the number of possible conceptions into wildly incalculable territory (easily making up for facts of geography, infertility, and humans' general tendency to avoid incest and sex withold people) without even accounting for all the innumerable different conditions, given a particular male and female, in which babies could have been made. Throw in that there are 2-3 generations between us and them and, well, there ya go. By any strictly probabilistic standard, you should not exist. You are an accident of history.

If you likely never even would have come to exist had things gone any other way than they did, why should you care that German and Italian fascists might have run Europe a little more harshly than Russian, British, French, and American fascists; or that the Japanese might have been slaughtering various Asian populations well into later decades in place of various democide-happy local tyrants? On the other hand, why should we care that some millions fewer Jews might have been killed 60 years ago if Arthur Neville Chamberlain had had a crystal ball, if it would mean that all the nice Jews we live next to, work with, and debate over the internet would almost certainly never have been born?

Anyone is of course free to pass moral judgments on the people and actions of the past – people in the past did many noble things and many horrible things. And certainly, we are all able to make speculations about how the world would be today if some variable of the past were changed, but these are mere counterfactual speculations, and to say that we owe the soviets, or allied war veterans of WWII, or Charlemange, or anyone else of generations past for the relative peace and civilized comfort we enjoy today is ignoratio elenchi. It is true, of course, but too true: we also owe Hitler and all the rest of the official bad guys of the known past for helping to make the world exactly what it is today.


It may be said of some arguments here that hindsight is 20/20. But that's exactly the point. This essay is not aimed to prove that the actions taken by the allies during WWII were not understandable or just given how the people of that time understood their circumstances; rather it is aimed against the shallow application of hindsight that aims to prove we owe this or that to people of the past.