A picture of Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler with members of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross First Class: Gerd Pleiss, Kurt Meyer, Gerd Bremer, Josef Dietrich, Theodor Wisch, Fritz Witt, Heinrich Springer and Otto Skorzeny. (Credit: German Reich Government; Ernst Krause (SS Sturmbannführer))
A few months before the second U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the German justice minister Herta Daubler-Gmelin compared the methods of then-president George W. Bush to those of Adolf Hitler: “Bush wants to divert attention from his domestic problems. It’s a classic tactic. It’s one that Hitler also used.”
The cries of indignation from the White House were strident. Ari Fleischer, Bush’s Press Secretary, commented: “The relations between the people of the United States and the people of Germany are very important to the American people. But this statement by the justice minister is outrageous and it is inexplicable.” (From the time of Shakespeare to the present day, it is useful to remember that when rulers or politicians “protest too much,” it is almost certain that something is being covered up.) German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder apologized to President Bush for the “impression” given by the statements of his justice minister.
An unstated premise of U.S. politics and the U.S. media is that comparisons with Hitler must be avoided, if not summarily condemned. Who is comparable to the Arch-Devil of history, responsible for the Holocaust and for millions of European deaths in violent conflicts? Certainly not us! And yet the irony is that Hitler himself would have been sympathetic to Daubler-Gmelin’s statement. (more…)
Former Governor of Florida Jeb Bush, 7 November 2012. (Credit: The World Affairs Council)
Barack Obama generally avoids the use of the term “evildoers.” That is the language of his predecessor, Bush-the-warmonger. One can make too much of the differences between the two presidents on matters of foreign policy. Both are leaders of the war state and, accordingly, conversant with the demonology of US war culture, which can be more or less nuanced. Early signs are that Jeb Bush prefers his brother’s bluntness.
Burning of Hatuey, a Taino chieftain. From a bas-relief of the portal of El Capitolio of Havana. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Every time I hear a U.S. politician making the case that this is a Christian country because our Founding Fathers were all Christians and they founded this country based on Christian values (blah blah blah), I tremble. My mind escapes to the early years of my first grade education when my teachers made sure I learned and understood the legend of the Caribbean chieftain Hatuey.
In 1542, Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas—the great Defender of the Indians—documented the first genocide of indigenous nations of the Americas in his Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies:
The reason why Christians have killed and destroyed so many and such an infinite number of souls only because they have gold as their ultimate end, and becoming bloated with riches in very few days, and climb to very high states out of proportion to their persons, it is good to know, is because of their insatiable greed and ambition, which has been greater than it could have been in the world, because these lands are so blissful and rich, and the people so humble, so patient and so easy to subjugate.
“If demons had gold,” Las Casas wrote, “[the Spanish] would attack them to steal it from them.”[i](more…)
Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, 10 April 2008. (Credit: Seyedkhan / Wikimedia Commons)
The perception of war’s necessity derives from (or at least corresponds to) a narrow view of the adversary. Enemies are imagined in caricature as the embodiment of evil. The crude image is an easy projection of a people’s collective anxieties.
A predisposition toward diplomacy and peacemaking requires a broader construction. It is more difficult to reflect on an adversary’s humanity than to react to a frightful caricature. The primitive impulse favors fighting over negotiating.
The debate between President Obama and his critics over how to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb is illustrative. (more…)
Chris Hedges worries that American culture is in precipitous decline. His book, Empire of Illusion (Nation Books, 2009) argues that the end of literacy constitutes a triumph of spectacle and illusion over reality. Only 20% of the public reads even one book in a given year. A society captive to images prizes effortless entertainment over substance. It gives up its intellectual tools for coping with real-world complexities.
The problem, Hedges argues, applies specifically to war. “The chasm between movie exploits and the reality of war, which takes less than a minute in a firefight to grasp, is immense. The shock of realty brings with it the terrible realization that we are not who we thought we were” (p. 20). The actual experience of soldiers and marines entering combat explodes “the mythic narrative of heroism and patriotic glory sold to the public by the Pentagon’s public relations machine and Hollywood” (p. 21). (more…)
Illustration from “Roughing It” by Mark Twain. Illustration by True Williams, 1872. (Credit: Gutenberg.org)
In Animal Farm, George Orwell created an allegory about totalitarianism that put in doubt the notion that a government of animals would be superior to a government of human beings, or vice versa. In his satirical essay “Man’s Place in the Animal World,” Mark Twain left no doubt that a society of men and women is a de-generation from superior societies found in the Animal Kingdom.
The Great American Trickster explains:
Man is the only animal that deals in that atrocity of atrocities, War. He is the only one that gathers his brethren about him and goes forth in cold blood and with calm pulse to exterminate his kind. He is the only animal that for sordid wages will march out … and help to slaughter strangers of his own species who have done him no harm and with whom he has no quarrel.
“The Cornell Farm” (oil on canvas) by Edward Hicks (1848).
When the animals rebelled in Orwell’s Animal Farm, they promptly set up a system of government based on a political philosophy called “Animalism.” Among its Seven Commandments, the last and final commandment painted on the barn wall read: “All animals are equal.”
Orwell’s fable (subtitled “A Fairy Story”) has been read as a political satire of the Russian Revolution. In this view, the pigs Napoleon and Snowball are surrogates for Stalin and Trotsky, and the indictments and slaughter of the animals accused of counterrevolutionary activities are an allegory of the Moscow Trials, etc.
In our smug self-sufficiency, we forget that parables, allegories and prophecies always refer not only to a particular set of historical events. When one reads the account of “the three hens who … now came forward and stated that Snowball had appeared to them in a dream and incited them to disobey Napoleon’s orders,” Animal Farm becomes Salem, Massachusetts, and is also a precursor of the U.S. Congress during the McCarthy era.
Parting from the disturbing premise that Animal Farm is a moral tale for us, I find several illuminating correlations: (more…)
Journalist and author Chris Hedges. (Credit: Chris Hedges)
Perhaps war is made to seem unimportant by dissociating it from daily life. The physical devastation of war happens elsewhere, not at home. War is fought by volunteers, not conscripts. War is a distant abstraction for 95% of the US public.
Perhaps war is made to seem necessary or even inevitable by a nearly continuous history of warfare. Peace is an empty promise perpetually deferred. It is a word devoid of a concept for most people.
Perhaps war is made to seem right and moral by characterizing it as a heroic act to defeat an evil enemy. Americans, according to the national myth, are an exceptional people blessed by God, a virtuous people who have undertaken a sacred mission, an innocent people confronting a cruel and uncivilized world.
Perhaps war appeals to a deep desire (repressed or not) to kill—panders to a guilty pleasure—which is gratified vicariously for the nation at large by its professional soldiers. (more…)
President Ronald W. Reagan salutes military personnel gathered in his honor, Oct. 12, 1986. (Credit: PH1 Sammy Pierce / Wikimedia Commons)
To say that war is not the answer (as suggested in a previous post) is to underscore that war lacks salience in the public mind and that peace is next to impossible for Americans to envision. US war culture displaces both an understanding of peace and a desire to pursue it.
War culture is difficult to change. It is deeply ingrained. Americans have been continuously at war for the past 250 years. The absence of war—which is not the same as a positive state of peace—is a rare and short-lived phenomenon in U.S. history. A condition of positive peace is unprecedented.
Nevertheless, culture is something learned and, therefore, subject to change. War culture does not just naturally persist. It is sustained by ritual. At least theoretically, a culture of war can be transformed over time into a culture of peace. (more…)
Christian’s Combat With Apollyon, by H.C. Selous and M. Paolo Priolo, circa 1850.
In the middle of the road of life, having left the City of Destruction on his way to the City of Zion, in the depths of the Valley of Humiliation, Christian (who was once called Graceless) meets the foul fiend Apollyon, who had “wings like a dragon, feet like a bear, and out of his belly came fire and smoke, and his mouth was as the mouth of a lion.”
The above print reflects the recurrent image of the devil myth that has haunted American war culture from the days of origin. There is always a devil to fight, a beast to overcome, Beelzebub to defeat, or Apollyon to engage in combat. (more…)