It used to be so easy. The good guys wore white cowboy hats and were clean-shaven like John Wayne. Their leader often rode a white horse. And their horses had names like Silver, Trigger, or Tony. The bad guys, by contrast, wore black hats, often had evil mustaches like Governor Dewey of New York, Harry Truman’s unsuccessful presidential opponent right after World War Two, and tended to ride dark horses. Then as now, moreover, superheroes, even if they wore masks like bank robbers—I’m thinking of the Lone Ranger and Batman—they were the good guys and always prevailed over the bad guys who lusted for power and would do whatever it took to acquire it for their personal gain. Also, as someone who was a little kid during World War Two, I knew without a doubt that we and our allies were the good guys and that the Germans and the Japanese and, to a lesser extent the Italians were the baddies...
Becoming an adult for most of us causes us to see things in a more nuanced way. Hitler with his little mustache was the picture of evil for Americans during World War Two. He was even portrayed as an arch-villain in comic books created especially for us American kids. Yet as an adult I saw an interview with his long-time secretary, at the time a very old woman, who stated that when she found out after the War how many terrible things he had done, she couldn’t believe it. He had been a wonderful boss, she said. If he thought she looked pale or didn’t feel well, he would say, “Why don’t you go home and rest, child, and come back when you feel better. I have others on my staff who can fill in for you.” Later as a grad student in English and American literature, I remember Melville saying in Moby-Dick that even the obsessed whaler captain, Ahab, “had his humanities.”
Nowadays, Japan and Germany, our arch-enemies once upon a time, are paragons of virtue and our allies. Japan even has a peace constitution which limits what kinds and sizes of military force the country can have. Germany, which once killed gypsies and homosexuals alongside Jews and other “undesirables,” took in over a million Syrians and other Muslims fleeing their unlivable homelands. As an exchange student in Germany, I always marveled at how laid back the police were. In the 60s in fact their long hair and sideburns stuck out from under their caps and they were inevitably soft-spoken. It felt like they were doing everything they could not to resemble concentration-camp guards barking out staccato, guttural commands. And finally, what about us? Well, as the former Axis powers do whatever they can to avoid international conflict, we, the erstwhile good guys, get involved in one war after another. Not only that, but as the heroic victors in World Wars I and II, we now find ourselves beaten by such minor powers as North Vietnam and the Taliban. What’s happened here, and what can we as individuals and as a country learn from this turn of events? I wonder.