Tony Bennett and the Incoherence of Pacifism

The Cinch Review

In an interview with Howard Stern the other day, the 85 year-old singer Tony Bennett made some statements about September 11th, 2001, for instance:

“But who are the terrorists? Are we the terrorists or are they the terrorists? Two wrongs don’t make a right,” and, “They flew the plane in, but we caused it. Because we were bombing them and they told us to stop.”

The obvious response to this is to say that Tony Bennett should stick to singing, and to talking about music. In those areas he’s pretty smart. In terms of politics, simply put, he’s always been a liberal wacko. When asked the kinds of questions Stern asked, Bennett is guaranteed to show his wackiness. He also said, maybe most absurdly of all, that President George W. Bush had confided in him at the White House that the war in Iraq had been “a mistake.”

Bennett has now apologized to an extent for what he said about 9/11. (He does have a new album to promote, after all.) He has said:

There is simply no excuse for terrorism and the murder of the nearly 3,000 innocent victims of the 9/11 attacks on our country. My life experiences — ranging from the Battle of the Bulge to marching with Martin Luther King — made me a lifelong humanist and pacifist, and reinforced my belief that violence begets violence and that war is the lowest form of human behavior.

I am sorry if my statements suggested anything other than an expression of my love for my country, my hope for humanity and my desire for peace throughout the world.

As he says there and has said elsewhere, his experiences fighting during World War II made him a pacifist. Pacifism is a position that inevitably distorts one’s way of looking at things. Writing about Bennett before (on the subject of his penchant for singing “America the Beautiful” in place of “The Star-Spangled Banner”) I quoted passages from his memoir regarding his war experiences and the horror of war instilled in him then. I also said that the following passage from his own book is the best answer to those—like himself—who maintain that wars should never be fought.

It was gratifying that the last official mission of the 255th Regiment was the liberation of the concentration camp in the town of Landsberg. It was thirty miles south of the notorious Dachau camp, on the opposite bank of the Lech River, which we were approaching. The river was treacherous and difficult to cross because there were still German soldiers protecting it, but we wouldn’t let anyone stop us from freeing those prisoners. Many writers have recorded what it was like in the concentration camps much more eloquently than I ever could, so I won’t even try to describe it. Just let me say I’ll never forget the desperate faces and empty stares of the prisoners as they wandered aimlessly around the campgrounds. Once we took possession of the camp, we immediately got food and water to the survivors, but they had been brutalized for so long that at first they couldn’t believe that we were there to help them and not to kill them. Many of the survivors were barely able to stand. To our horror we discovered that all of the women and children had been killed long before our arrival and that just the day before, half of the remaining survivors had been shot … The whole thing was beyond comprehension. After seeing such horrors with my very eyes, it angers me that some people insist there were no concentration camps.

Deciding not to fight and not to support those who do—deciding to allow a great evil to proceed because of one’s own desire to maintain a pacifist principle—is not a morally defensible choice. It is a kind of moral preening, a dangerous sort of insularity. But as I wrote then:

So, next time you hear Tony Bennett crooning a cheerful song on the radio, remember that 18 or 19 year-old kid who was there when it counted, and who, despite his terror, helped free those concentration camp victims, and helped put an end to the Nazis and to World War II.

Way to go, Tony.

Better to give him credit for what he did, and to remember his best years of singing, than to dwell on his flawed perspective on politics, war and peace.