Archive for the ‘military/militarism’ Category
I went to the Warsaw Uprising Museum a few days ago. In August of 1944, thousands of Poles in Warsaw rose up against their Nazi occupiers. They lasted almost two months, when the Germans finally crushed the rebellion as Soviet tanks looked on across the Vistula, doing nothing to help the valiant Poles. According to statistics from the museum, the Germans destroyed nearly 90% of the city, and left the Polish capitol, once a city of 1.3 million, with only a few thousand inhabitants.
Needless to say, that museum did not exist when I was last in Warsaw in 1999. Even if it had, though, I wouldn’t have visited it. We stuck to Jewish sites on that trip, and this was a Polish story. It’s a Polish story that the museum tells, and rightly so. The Varsovians are justly proud of their history of resistance. Of course, being the parochial that I am, I couldn’t help but look for any mention of Jews throughout the entire museum, especially the other Warsaw uprising, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. That valiant but failed effort saw the city’s Jewish population decimated.
The Warsaw Uprising Museum had a small but tasteful section on the Ghetto Uprising, and some other Jewish content sprinkled throughout the exhibits. Only once, though, in one sentence, did a plaque mention that some non-Jewish Poles helped round up their fellow citizens and deliver them to the Germans and their ultimate demise.
Indeed, the museum had very little on any Polish collaboration with the Nazis. The Museum’s story was, in a sense, Poland’s story: fucked by the Germans, then fucked by the Russians. It happened in the 18th century, and then again in the 20th. While the Nazis were the museum’s main villains, the Soviets came a close second. The museum highlights Stalin’s refusal to come to the Uprising’s aid. In another prominent section, right by the cafe, the exhibits emphasized the brutality of the Soviet occupation, and how after the war the Soviets specifically targeted leaders of the Uprising, murdering many, to avoid facing that sort of resistance themselves.
Apropos of this flap over McChrystal and the general discussion of the proper relationship between civilians and the military, Eric, over at Edge of the American West points out that Americans haven’t always thought that people who serve in the military were more honorable than those who served in civilian branches of government. ” This was not always the case; the US military used fairly regularly to be regarded as a home of reprobates and jobbers of the worst sort.”
Eric is certainly correct, at least about antebellum America. I happen to be reading Thoreau’s journal right now, and this is what he has to say about the Marines in Boston: “The marines and the militia whose bodies were used lately were not men of sense or principle; in a high moral sense they were not men at all.” In another passage he describes newspaper editors as “their life is [as] abject even as the marines.” Walt Whitman also grouped soldiers together with other forms of monarchial oppression: “the frighten’d monarchs come back, Each comes in state, with his train—hangman, priest, tax-gatherer, Soldier, lawyer, lord, jailer, and sycophant.”
This isn’t to say, of course, that Thoreau is right or that we should disrespect individuals who join the armed forces. But of course, this McChrystal flap is a good reminder that civilian rule should take precedent. And there is a big difference between the common soldier, who are mostly fine people, and the generals. It seems to me that a healthy democracy will maintain a good deal of skepticism about the generals and admirals. We should be skeptical of all our elites, but especially those with the power of life or death. The hero-worship of generals like David Petraeus always reminded me of Rome right as the Republic crumbled.
A few years ago I saw Christopher Hitchens speak about his book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything at the Barnes and Noble in Union Square. It was about 6 pm, and Hitch has hammered. Glassy eyed and on unsteady legs, Hitchens delivered a marvelous address, both interesting and hilarious.
I certainly don’t agree with all his positions, but I admire his skill with the pen and his role as provocateur. And after reading this uncharitable interview, I discovered we have something in common. The author, Decca Aitkenhead, notes:
When the invasion of Iraq was first debated, one couldn’t fail to notice the preponderance of left-wing men of a certain age who came out in support of the war. Radicals as adults, but often from conservative backgrounds, now beginning to confront their own mortality, and preoccupied by masculinity and legacy, their palpable thrill about military might suggested that, deep down, they secretly feared progressive principles were for pussies. Now here was their chance, before it was too late, to prove their manhood.
In 2006, Hitchens’ wife, the American writer Carol Blue, told the New Yorker her husband was one of “those men who were never really in battle and wished they had been. There’s a whole tough-guy, ‘I am violent, I will use violence, I will take some of these people out before I die’ talk, which is key to his psychology – I don’t care what he says. I think it is partly to do with his upbringing.”
Is there any truth in what his wife said? He pauses for a second. Then, unexpectedly: “Yeah. Yes. One of the things I’ve realised, writing the book, is that it has to be true.”
I was a left-wing man of a much younger age then, but I also supported the Iraq War. I’ve though about this a lot over the years. I certainly think it has something to do with my particular Canadian-Jewish upbringing: I grew up in a household where the major war of interest was not Vietnam, but World War II, the “good war.” Both my grandparents and my great uncle had fought in it, for either Poland or the Soviets or both. The other wars I knew about, of course, were Israel’s wars, chiefly the War of Independence, the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, all understood by my uncritical Zionist mind as righteous struggles for Israel’s survival.
Like many a young Jewish boy though, I had my issues with masculinity. Growing up, I never much cared for Sesame Street, but loved He-Man and G.I. Joe. I became a big boxing fan. In college, I read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, and was struck by the final section, where Alexander Portnoy visits Israel and exclaims, “Here we’re the WASPs!” Visiting Israel myself, seeing the proud Jewish men (often really boys) in uniforms, armed with M-16s, I was in awe of the macho Sabra ideal even before I read Leon Uris’ Exodus, which only happened a few years later.
When Matt Taibbi wrote this post, excoriating David Brooks for his attributing a militaristic “Christian” zeal to George W. Bush and even Barack Obama in their leadership in the War on Terror. The religion that jumped out at me, though, when I read the piece, was not Christianity but Judaism. First Taibbi admitted that his attitude towards Brooks “is colored by certain strong feelings… about his appearance–he just looks like a professional groveler/ass-kisser.” Taibbi went on:
Brooks is the kind of character who has thrived everywhere he’s lived throughout human history; it’s incredibly easy to imagine the nebbishy, hairy-kneed Gaius Domitus Brooksius strolling through Rome and swelling with pride over his new appointment to the post of Senior Licker of the Caligulan butt crack.
Taibbi’s use of the word nebbish was telling. Later, he employed the term again:
Brooks is a perfect example of the kind of spineless Beltway geek we always see beating the war drum at times like these. It’s because nebbishly [sic] little dorks like Brooks and Paul Wolfowitz and David Frum got their books dumped in high school that we end up dropping daisy cutters on Afghan sheep herds and shipping working class American kids halfway around the world to get their nuts blown off. That sounds like a simplistic explanation, but anyone who doesn’t have a keen ear for the pencil-pusher’s eternal quest for macho cred is going to have a hard time understanding Washington politics.
When I first read this, an alarm went off in my head: “Brooks and Paul Wolfowitz and David Frum,” Jew, Jew, Jew. I looked at Taibbi’s wikipedia page, and noted that he had played some form of professional basketball and baseball. Here was the cool, hip goyish athlete, picking on the nerdy, nebbishy Jews.
This resonated with me because I had been there, even if I went to an all-Jewish high school and the bullies there were Jews too. I don’t think Taibbi is an antisemite. In fact, I think he’s on to something, but he veered off track when focusing on “Christian Warriors.” He was right to identify the “pencil-pusher’s eternal quest for macho cred” but it’s very often a Jewish quest, including Brooks and Wolfowitz and Frum but also Hitchens (despite his being anti-Zionist) and undoubtedly many others. I know it because I felt it, and still feel it, even if my views on particular military conflicts have changed.