May 19, 2007

La Nostalgie (WWII Department)

Gideon Rachman:

Faced with the most deadly attack ever against the American mainland, it was natural that the president's mind should turn to the great conflicts of the past. But, in evoking the memory of the second world war, Mr Bush was tapping into a wave of nostalgia for the heroism of 1939-45 that had been building up for a decade.

Hollywood rediscovered the second world war in the 1990s. In the 1970s and 1980s, the war films that carried off the most prestigious Oscars for best picture and best director were about Vietnam: The Deerhunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989). But in the decade before 9/11, Vietnam went out of vogue and films set during the second world war were winning Oscars: Schindler's List (1993), The English Patient (1996) and Saving Private Ryan (1998).

Second world war nostalgia was also a literary phenomenon. Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation was published in 1998 and sold more than 1m copies in hardback alone. It implicitly contrasted the fecklessness of the Clinton years with the heroism of the generation that won the second world war. The most prolific American popular historian of the 1990s was the late Stephen Ambrose, who churned out uplifting tales of American heroism in the second world war with titles such as: D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II and The Victors: Eisenhower and His Boys - the Men of World War II.

It was Band of Brothers, however, the story of a company of American paratroopers, that probably had the greatest impact because it was made into an award-winning television series - directed by Steven Spielberg and co-produced by Tom Hanks. The first episode aired on September 9 2001 - just two days before the planes hit the World Trade Center.

Band of Brothers was running on American television throughout the traumatic months that followed 9/11. Dexter Fletcher, an actor who starred in the mini-series, summed up its moral: "As a man of 20 I don't know if I'd have been able to do it. It's hard for people of our generation to imagine what it must have been like, but hopefully the series captures some of it and will make people today think: 'Could I have handled that?' "

The yearning for a heroic challenge, after the ease and corruption of a long period of peace and prosperity has been seen before. It is reminiscent of the mood in Britain and Germany before the first world war. Rupert Brooke, a British poet who died in that conflict, saw his generation reacting to the outbreak of war in 1914 "like swimmers into cleanness leaping".

And, on cue, Fred Kagan:

From time to time, nations face fundamental tests of character. Forced to choose between painful but wise options, and irresponsible ones that offer only temporary relief from pain, a people must decide what price they are willing to pay to safeguard themselves and their children and to do the right thing. America has faced such tests before. Guided by Abraham Lincoln, we met our greatest challenge during the Civil War and overcame it, despite agonizing doubts about the possibility of success even into 1864. The Greatest Generation recovered from the shock of Pearl Harbor and refused to stop fighting until both Germany and Japan had surrendered unconditionally. A similar moment is upon us in Iraq. What will we do?

America has vital national interests in Iraq. The global al Qaeda movement has decided to defeat us there--not merely to establish a base from which to pursue further tyranny and terror, but also to erect a triumphant monument on the ruins of American power. Al Qaeda claims to have defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and its recruiting rests in part on that boast. If America flees the field of battle against this foe in Iraq, al Qaeda will have gained an even more powerful recruiting slogan. That is why al Qaeda fighters from across the Muslim world are streaming into Iraq and fighting desperately to retain and expand their positions there. Al Qaeda does not think Iraq is a distraction from their war against us. Al Qaeda believes Iraq is the central front--and it is. To imagine that America can lose in Iraq but prevail in the war against jihadism is almost like imagining that we could have yielded Europe to the Nazis but won World War II.

P.S. Don't miss Fred K's schmaltzy travelogue coda, by the by. Clearly Kagan hasn't been to many war zones, where children suffering through the most dismal conditions will always look wondrously at foreign visitors--not because they expect deliverance from visiting 17th Street surgists--but because a war that continues to be cheer-led by the AEI scriveners has visited untold horrors on them and so they cast about with jealous curiousity at anyone passing through not condemned to their sorry fate (it's nice to have a passport home, isn't it?):

But to my amazement, we also saw children in those streets who did not glare or run or stand dourly as the occupiers passed. Instead they smiled and waved, asking for candy or just saying hello. Even in the worst places in Iraq, we have not lost the children. They still look to us with hope. They still expect us to deliver them from death and violence. They still believe that we will honor our commitments to their parents.

What will happen if we abandon these children? Death will stalk them and their families. Al Qaeda will attempt to subjugate them. Shia militias will drive them from their homes or kill them. And they and their neighbors, and everyone in the Middle East, will know we left them to their fate. Everyone will know, "Never trust the Americans." Everyone will warn their children, "The Americans will only betray you." We will cement our reputation as untrustworthy. We will lose this generation not only in Iraq, but throughout the Middle East. And we will have lost more than our reputation and our ability to protect our interests. We will have lost part of our soul.

Dear readers, this cheap adolescent drivel was written by one of the key architects of the surge. These are the basic intellectual parameters being brought to bear in terms of policy-making assumptions regarding the war (we haven't lost the children yet!). And this is what passes for "analysis" in the Weekly Standard, that is to say, Murdochian propaganda masquerading as maudlin cri de coeur. Be afraid, be very afraid.

This is faith-based adventurism, little more, and another eight of our young men died in pursuit of such a "policy" over the past 48 hours. When will the likes of John Warner defect and tell the President to wholeheartedly adopt the ISG recommendations (rather than in piecemeal fashion, dragged kicking and screaming) and stop this madness? Once we're embroiled in renewed large-scale fighting with Shi'a militias? Once Kirkuk implodes? After we lose scores more in Diyala and Mosul worsens, because we continue not to have enough troops in theater (and never will), so are still playing whack-a-mole? Where are the grown-ups not dwelling in fantasy land--apparently deriving their inspiration like teeny-bopper war tourists--because Iraqi kids smiled and asked them for chewing gum (sorry, just to 'say hello')? The time for gauzy sentimentalism passing as policy has long since passed. Been there, done that. It didn't work then, and it won't now.

Posted by Gregory at May 19, 2007 04:06 AM

If victory in Iraq is so absolutely crucial, then why the hell aren't Kagan (and Bush) urging the creation of a draft? And why didn't they before?

Conversely, if you REALLY want to imagine a situation in which America can't possibly win the Megaterrorism War, consider what will happen if Iranian or Pakistani or North Korean nukes get loose while we're still screwing around in Iraq.

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw at May 19, 2007 05:19 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Thus is the parodox of neo-conservatism: it uses the hard rhetoric of World War II, about beating the enemy into subservience, while softening this message with language about liberty and freedom. It is Rambo and Ghandi all at once.

That Iraq is not pleased to be part of our liberation shouldn't be suprising; what's suprising is that we don't learn.


Posted by: The Mechanical Eye at May 19, 2007 10:20 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Why aren't the likes of Fred Kagan not on the front lines of the battlefield in Iraq? He's still a young man, late 30s. Certainly not old enough to not fight in the "decisive battle of our generation."

Cowards, the whole lot of them.

Posted by: Dan at May 19, 2007 03:40 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

This is just plain stupid. At risk of further analogizing, what the Bush administration did after 9/11 is the equivalent of invading Canada after the Civil War began, rather than fight the Confederacy. (Interestingly, then Secretary of State Seward proposed doing just that as a means to unite the country. Fortunately, Lincoln had the good sense not to go along with it.

Posted by: Tom S at May 19, 2007 04:47 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Kagan: "That is why al Qaeda fighters from across the Muslim world are streaming into Iraq and fighting desperately to retain and expand their positions there. "

Wow! Its one thing to hijack WWII, its another thing entirely to spread falsehoods about who we are fighting in Iraq. And then there is this....

Al Qaeda will attempt to subjugate them. Shia militias will drive them from their homes or kill them.

Gotta love how Kagan can bring up the two elements most at odds with each other in Iraq's civil war without mentioning that they are mortal enemies....

Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 20, 2007 01:11 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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