Monday 14 January 2002

There is no moral clarity in war

In a Jerusalem Post op-ed piece (reprinted in the Sydney Morning Herald) in which he praises the “moral clarity” of America’s war against terrorism, Benjamin Netanyahu writes:

No grievance, whether real or imagined, can ever justify terrorism. Its deliberate and systematic targeting of civilians, as opposed to the unintentional civilian casualties that are the tragic consequences of justified warfare, must be seen - like Nazism - as an unmitigated evil.

This argument never ceases to amaze me. British bombing raids on Germany during World War II were directed specifically at civilian targets. And although the American public was outraged by Japanese air attacks on Chinese cities, the United States put aside any claims to moral clarity when, in the last months of the Pacific War, the Twentieth Air Force abandoned precision bombing against military targets and launched the firebombing campaign against Japan.

Tokyo after the March 9-10 raid

In the first raid—on the night of March 9-10, 1945—napalm-based incendiaries killed an estimated 100,000 civilians. According to the most authoratitive source, Kenneth Werrell’s Blankets of Fire, during the course of the campaign B-29s destroyed 178 square miles (43 percent) of the built-up areas of sixty-six cities (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki). The United States Strategic Bombing Survey estimated that 330,000 people were killed, 476,000 injured, 2.5 million buildings destroyed, and 8.5 million made homeless.

I’m not suggesting that the USAAF lacked justification in bombing Japanese cities. I’ve yet to encounter a convincing alternative strategy that could have ended the war with fewer casualties, military or civilian. But only a lawyer, a politician, a hypocrite, or a fool would suggest that war affords any opportunities for moral clarity. Netanyahu’s statement is particularly egregious, given the Israeli government’s tacit support for illegal settlements on the West Bank.

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Sunday 20 January 2002

Do not they bleed?

A passionate essay titled Warmongering at Earlier in the week I wrote that “it’s difficult to see how a state can commit its armed forces to a ‘war against terrorism’ while denying that captured enemy soldiers are prisoners-of-war.” However, seeing a discussion between two “experts” on a current affairs program a couple of nights ago swayed my opinion against captured Taliban and Al-Quaeda fighters being classified as prisoners-of-war according to the 1949 Geneva Convention.

They weren’t in uniform, they didn’t wear badges of rank, there wasn’t any legally constituted chain of command… if anything, they most resemble mercenaries who, along with spies, are specifically excluded from the provisions of the Geneva Convention. This is crucial for the US Government because prisoners-of-war are entitled to be repatriated to their own countries after the cessation of hostilities. The idea of punishing Al-Quaeda fighters with a slap on the wrist then sending them back to Afghanistan is laughable.

So I agree with Meryl that “terrorists get fewer rights” and that “anyone who thinks a single American POW would have been treated well [by the Taliban] is lying to us and to himself.” But she concludes with the statement: “the terrorists lost their claim to humanity long ago. If you ask me, human rights are for humans.” From where I stand, that looks like the top of a long and slippery slope. The finest soldiers balance ruthlessness with compassion.

I’ve spent the last couple of years doing research for a book about, in part, the Pacific War. When I read Meryl’s final sentence I recalled a message that Admiral Nimitz sent out to the US Pacific Fleet immediately upon the conclusion of the war:

It is incumbent on all officers to conduct themselves with dignity and decorum in their treatment of the Japanese and their public utterances in connec­tion with the Japanese. The Japanese are still the same nation which initiated the war by a treacherous attack on the Pacific Fleet and which has subjected our brothers in arms who became prisoners to torture, starvation and murder. However, the use of insulting epithets in connection with the Japanese as a race or as individuals does not now become the officers of the United States Navy. Officers in the Pacific Fleet will take steps to require of all personnel under their command a high standard of conduct in this matter. Neither fa­miliarity nor abuse and vituperation should be permitted.

Admittedly, Nimitz was referring to verbal abuse, but the subtext of his message was clear: despite the inhuman behavior of the Japanese towards American prisoners-of-war, it was the duty of American personnel to treat the Japanese humanely.

In Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, from which I’ve quoted Nimitz’s order, Richard B. Frank writes that “this message also proved to reflect on the character of President Truman. Of the dozens of messages and hundreds of operational reports he received from theater commanders, he took particular care to see that this message was culled out and preserved separately in his papers.”

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Sunday 10 February 2002

Never a good idea, Caleb…

to ignore the fundamental rule that a writer should never attempt to publicly defend a book against a hostile critic. Caleb Carr complains to Salon about Laura Miller’s review:

Her review of my “The Lessons of Terror” is riddled not only with references to statements made in the book that she can’t PROVE wrong, but simply FEELS MUST be wrong, as if she is reviewing something as subjective as Lady Bushnell’s latest tripe, but also with arrogant misstatements of actual facts: Japan, for example, was not reduced to surrender by either the bombing of its civilians or, finally, the atomic bombs; it had been reduced to fatal weakness by something that I’m sure Ms. Miller is utterly unaware of, one of the most underappreciated military campaigns in history: that of American submarines against Japanese naval and merchant shipping. But let’s not let facts or a shaky grounding in history keep us from being a bitchy wise-ass—THAT would get you thrown out of the club that meets at Michiko’s to watch “Sex in the City” and spout a lot of nonsense about things they don’t know.

Anyone who has read even a miniscule amount about the Pacific War understands that Japan was forced to surrender for a number of reasons, only one of which was the American submarine campaign against Japanese shipping. Suggesting this was the most important factor lays Mr Carr open to the very accusation he levels against Ms Miller: that he’s a bitchy wise-ass with a shaky grounding in history.

Among the other reasons for Japan’s final surrender were:

  • the firebombing raids cited by Ms Miller, in which—according to the United States Strategic Bombing Survey—B-29s killed 330,000 people, injured 476,000, destroyed 2.5 million buildings, and left 8.5 million people homeless.
  • the mine-laying campaign in the Inland Sea, undertaken by B-29s and carrier based aircraft that caused massive losses of shipping in the last five months of the war (1,052,177 tons compared to 235,627 tons lost to submarines)
  • the destruction of the Japanese navy in a series of ongoing battles that eventually left the most powerful ships in the fleet confined to their homeland ports
  • the gradual attrition by superior American aircraft and pilots that reduced the Japanese air force to kamikaze tactics
  • the successful, albeit costly, American strategy of attacking and capturing crucial islands in the Central Pacific while bypassing huge numbers of Japanese troops—leaving them to languish in irrelevant and inhospitable South Pacific bases
  • the deteriorating civilian morale caused by unrelenting bombing and lack of food (by the end of the war the average Japanese citizen’s daily food ration comprised 1680 calories, less than subsistence levels, resulting in a massive increase in diseases caused by nutrional deficiencies)
  • the disillusionment of Emperor Hirohito about the competence of his generals and the progress of the war together with his concern for the suffering inflicted on his subjects, both military and civilian
  • the existence of a peace faction within the Japanese government which, although initially weak and powerless, gathered strength and confidence as the war continued to Japan’s disadvantage
  • the fear amongst the civilian powerbrokers that the Imperial system was under threat from internal upheaval 
  • the dropping of the two atomic bombs which, although failing to convince the diehard militarists of American superiority, provided the peace faction with sufficient evidence to persuade the Emperor that the war could not be won.

Even if the US not developed the atomic bombs, the United States Army Air Force would have next turned its attention to destroying the Japanese rail system, a strategy that had significantly contributed to the defeat of Nazi Germany. Such an assault would (according to Richard B. Frank) “have required massive repair and replacement of rail infrastructure to remedy, far beyond the capacity of Japan’s resources, even after hostilities ceased.” This, together with the ongoing blockade and bombing strategy, would inevitably have compelled the Emperor to end the war, thus avoiding the land invasion that was causing deep concern to US Army and Marine planning staff.

At the risk of sounding like a bitchy wise-ass, I’ll suggest that Mr Carr might be better off leaving the Pacific War alone and trying instead to wangle an invitation to Michiko’s to watch “Sex in the City.”

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Wednesday 20 March 2002

Intelligence and compromise

Mike Golby praises Michael Webb’s essay, What is a superpower to do? A few remarks on Israel and Palestine.:

I share the gist of Michael’s sentiments, and applaud him for tackling a subject that elicits extreme and irrational responses. If he is to be accused of ‘liberal sentiment’, then let us look at just one of the realities of global politics. For it is forces such as these that those seeking a world free of domination by one of another will have to undermine, destroy, and relegate to distant memory.

And Mike finds Douglas Ord’s pictorial and textual essay, Stereopticon, “simultaneously profound, disturbing, moving, and satisfying.”

Ord’s work has phenomenal power and anybody not moved by it must have something wrong with them.
They will either agree or disagree with what they see and hear. Ord leaves little room to carve a middle path through this remarkable reflection of a world gone wrong.

The first time I experienced Ord’s hypnotic juxtaposition of images and texts I was equally impressed. Later, as I reflected on it, I felt a nagging doubt.

It’s not that I disagree with Douglas Ord. His deconstruction of “a group of Palestinian men and boys watching the attacks on the World Trade Centre from an almost bare room in their refugee camp” is perhaps the best visual analysis of a news event I have ever encountered. It’s not that I disagree with Ord’s ruthless delineation of Arial Sharon’s complicity in the massacre by Israeli-armed Lebanese militia of hundreds (or thousands) of Palestinian men, women, and children in the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila. In post-war Japan, the War Crimes Tribunal executed dozens of Japanese soldiers and civilians for crimes less serious and on the basis of slighter evidence than that amassed against Sharon. It’s not that I don’t support Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

It’s because Douglas Ord’s polemical essay, to borrow Mike Golby’s words, “leaves little room to carve a middle path.” I would find it infinitely more compelling if it did; if Ord had also turned his considerable forensic skills on the actions of Yasser Arafat and the PLO. <edit> And, in doing so, addressed the argument that Bill Allison raises today at Ideofact

I think, in 1993, Arafat was presented with a rare opportunity. Oslo allowed him to be the vanguard of the Arab world. Had Arafat embraced peace, played Ghandi rather than the thug, insisted on a democratic Palestinian authority, and given the Israelis confidence that they had a partner in peace, he could very well have created a statelet, and then a state, that would stand in sharp rebuke to the rest of those dysfunctional Arab states. He could have turned to the dictators in Syria and Egypt, in Iraq and Iran, and told them that he was building a democratic, secular Palestine. It would not have been easy, indeed, it might have been suicidal. Instead, Arafat played the role he knew best, that of the thug. Long before the most recent wave of violence began roughly a year and a half ago, Arafat had already managed to impoverish his people and strip them of any chance of a decent life. That’s the price the Palestinians paid for Oslo.</edit>

But Ord’s essay lacks what is most needed—a middle path—whereas this precisely forms the foundation of Webb’s, which equally deserves the adjectives “profound, disturbing, moving, and satisfying.”

Profound in its application of American political ideals to contemporary circumstances:

Washington saw in government an opportunity not for contention of opposing points of view, but their reconciliation, recognizing the common and good. His plea for foreign and commercial efforts was that “we seek to promote the good for all, that only in that will we prosper.”
I see Washington’s Farewell Address as a plea for a foreign policy not disengaged, but disinterested. In plain words, not selfish. We may reflect that much, although not all, of our foreign policy has notably lacked this element, and that unintended consequences have dogged nearly all occasions of protecting or extending “American interests”.

Disturbing in its demand that ideals be matched by actions:

To those who deride these sentiments as “liberal sentiments” and advocate ‘real politic’ or a machiavellian approach, I just remind you that they are the principals and sentiments on which our country was founded, and the source of the strength we now enjoy. America is an adolescent country, founded on hope and a faith in the goodness of man, tempered by admission of common failings. We find ourselves now with the challenges that suggest it is time to grow up.

Moving in its willingness to fuse the personal and the political:

Many of the powerful emotions that sweep people and nations are the same ones that move and trouble me, and ultimately self examination, not external situations are the only solution. But like a drunk who can’t stop drinking, the self destruction of Israel-Palestine needs to be put in detox, some measure of health restored before that healing can start.

and satisfying in its even-handedness:

Who killed hope and the future in the mid-east is not material. Who has right or title does not matter. Who was there first does not matter. Israeli or Palestinian, each locked in their own mythologies and personal histories, have little hope for a future. Those substantial portions of the Israeli population that envision an Israel cleansed of Palestinians, or Palestinians who draw a map without Israel are hallucinating a world that will not be, or that would sacrifice their humanity and their religion to accomplish.

As I walked back from the pool this afternoon I suddenly realized why I responded to Michael Webb’s essay. I’d recalled a moment in La Femme Marieé, which—although it is not one of my favorite Godard movies—contains one of my favorite Godard scenes, a monologue—titled Intelligence—by the neglected critic and director Roger Leenhardt:

… I think this is the best definition of intelligence: “Understand before you act.” In order to search further, to reach the depths, the heights, to understand others, to find a small bridge between oneself and the other, between pro and con… . Not everybody cares for this intellectual approach. Especially nowadays, when things are either black or white, and seeking shadings seems a bit gray. But to me, it’s the fanatics who are boring; you always know what they are going to say… . But people who like paradox are fun. Paradox offers an alternative to the self-evident. And then there is compromise, the finest, most courageous of intellectual acts… . It’s come to mean lack of conviction. Still, I’ll go on looking for the proper synthesis and I insist the world isn’t totally absurd. And intelligence is precisely the attempt to inject a little reason into this absurdity.

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Monday 15 April 2002

Why Samuel Beckett joined the Resistance

From James Knowlson’s Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett

Péron was responsible for recruiting his Irish friend into the Resistance movement. Beckett needed little persuading. He had followed the rise of Nazism in the 1930s with fascination, growing disgust, and, finally, horror. He had dipped with revulsion into Hitler’s Mein Kampf and recognized the racial hatred that lay at the roots of national socialism. During his extended visit to Germany in 1936-37, he had witnessed at first hand the impact of anti-Semitism on individual painters whom he had met in Hamburg, persecuted simply because they were non-“Aryan.”

Now, back in occupied Paris in 1940, Jewish friends were being stigmatized and abused, even assaulted. Beckett was disgusted by the Statut des Juifs introduced in October 1940 to discriminate against Jews and appalled when they were forced to wear the Star of David. When Jewish-owned properties were daubed with anti-Semitic slogans, then attacked and burned down, he was deeply shocked and repelled by the crude visual symbolism and by the verbal messages of anti-Semitic posters. The taking and execution of hostages in 1941, when some of the Jewish people he knew were rounded up and arrested, horrified him. This was months before “la Grande Rafle” (the Big Roundup) of mid-July 1942, when 12,844 Jews were arrested. Whether all this was being done by French anti-Semitic groups out of indigenous Vichy-inspired hatred (as much of the anti-Jewish violence in the very early days of the occupation was) or by the Germans themselves was a specious distinction for Beckett. It was sufficient that it was inhumane. As an Irishman, he was in principle neutral during the war, but “you simply couldn’t stand by with your arms folded,” he commented.

One of the key factors in his decision to join the Resistance cell of which Péron was an important member was the arrest and disappearance to a concentration camp of Joyce’s friend, unpaid secretary, and helper, Paul Léon. Like many of Léon’s friends, Beckett had expressed concern that he and his wife and family should remain in Paris at a time so dangerous for anyone Jewish. Beckett recounted how he met Léon in the street in August 1941 and told him with alarm that he should leave at once. “I have to wait until tomorrow when my son takes his bachot [school examination],” replied Léon. The following day he was arrested and interned near Paris. Throughout the next few months, Beckett expressed his concern for his friend by handing over his rations to Paul Léon’s wife, Lucie, to be sent to the internee. Lucie Léon relates:

In 1941, my husband Paul Léon was arrested and was being starved and tortured by the Germans (we were all in Paris at that time). I was trying to get food packages together and it was an almost impossible task. Sam Beckett used to bring me his bread ration and also his cigarette ration, so I could get them through to the camp. I will never forget this great kindness on his part. At that time he was probably in almost as much trouble as we were, and he certainly needed those rations himself.

Léon was arrested on August 21, 1941, and, according to official documents, Beckett formally joined the Resistance on the first day of September.

From Deidre Bair’s Samuel Beckett

[Beckett] intended to live quietly as a neutral alien, to tend to his writing and to see if he could help any of his friends who were still in Paris. He wanted to stay in France as a visible symbol of sympathy for his French friends while observing the restraints which he felt his Irish citizenship imposed upon him. His Jewish friends had all disappeared, and so he was astonished one day to see Paul Léon walking openly down a street past German foot patrols and officers sitting in cafes. Léon assured the horrified Beckett that he intended to go into hiding the very next day, as soon as his son received his baccalaureate degree, but he gambled one day too long. He was arrested and interned near Paris, and killed as a Jew by the Nazis in 1942.

All around Beckett senseless arrests and killings were commonplace. Even more devastating was the knowledge that numerous friends were either colloborating openly with the Germans or indirectly toadying to them. He found himself unable to remain neutral any longer. Now that the war touched his friends, it was no longer a philosophical exercise—it had become grimly personal. Léon’s incarceration was just one of the events which led to Beckett’s abandonment of neutrality: “I was so outraged by the Nazis, particularly by their treatment of the Jews, that I could not remain inactive,” he said. Long after the war, when an interviewer asked Beckett why he had taken an active political stand, he replied, “I was fighting against the Germans, who were making life hell for my friends, and not for the French nation.” He was being consistent in his apolitical behaviour.


Wednesday 17 April 2002

When everybody loves everybody else

From Tim Bowden’s One Crowded Hour: Neil Davis Combat Cameraman 1934-1985

One morning Davis was having breakfast in a soup shop and a North Vietnamese cameraman recognised him and introduced himself. The two men realised that they had covered some of the same battles from different sides. They talked for a long time with the camaraderie of like-minded professionals.

Davis knew that his time in Indo-China was inevitably coming to a close and that he would have to rebuild his life elsewhere after eleven years of close association and identification with Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. As the two combat cameraman reminisced, the North Vietnamese leaned across the table and asked Neil an important personal question.

“Did you enjoy covering combat?” he asked the tall Australian.

The question took Davis by surprise, but he admitted he did. The North Vietnamese agreed he did also, and asked Neil whether he also missed it.

I was not able to give him a good enough answer, and again turned the question back, and asked him if he missed covering battle action.

“Yes,” said the North Vietnamese, “because under those conditions everybody loves everybody else.”

I think he said it best. I built up many close friendships in Indo-China during the war, because they were formed under extraordinary circumstances. When you are with someone in times of stress, the small irritations of people’s behaviour don’t matter, because when it comes to the big things, they behave very well. I found the great majority of people behaved superbly in very difficult situations.

When you are under fire or under attack and everything seems lost and you are facing death, I have found people are naturally courageous.

That is what my North Vietnamese friend also realised, and expressed so well when he said that under those conditions, everybody loves everybody else.

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Sunday 21 April 2002

Warblogging and the warm inner glow

This morning, the Channel Nine current affairs program Sunday ran two related Middle East stories. First, Jim Waley and a Sunday camera crew visited the Jenin refugee camp “avoiding the Israeli military on the outskirts of Jenin by using back trails to walk into the city.” Then, the pièce de resistance:

In the middle of all this, Sunday decided to organise a town meeting in the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, on the border between the Arab and the Jewish parts of the city. We invited both Israelis and Palestinians alike, from all walks of life, holding a wide range of views … to see if there was any common ground for resurrecting the peace that was seemingly buried when Israel launched its Operation Defensive Shield on Good Friday. Jim Waley was the moderator of a sometimes fiery debate …

The Nine Network loves to stage these “town meetings.” Drugs, in-vitro fertilization, child abuse, Aboriginals, asylum seekers… the moment any controversial issue crops up in Australia, Nine rolls out a town meeting with Jim Waley or Richard Carleton or Ray Martin on hand to moderate the mandatory fiery debate. Now it seems they decided to inflict a town meeting on a bunch of hapless Israelis and Palestinians.

As I sat down to watch this Fiery Forum in Jerusalem, only one thing was certain: the meeting would end in acrimony, as Nine-sponsored town meetings generally do, with the participants trading barbs across a gulf of hostility. Then the moderator—having overseen a process that invariably generates vast amounts of heat but very little light—would thank the participants before delivering a homily about how we all now know a little more about this difficult and complex issue.

And that’s how it played out, largely. You can read the transcript, though it conveys little of the emotional tenor of the exchange. In any case, half-an-hour later we were back exactly where we’d started. Nowhere.

The Fiery Forum in Jerusalem encapsulated the entire Middle East debate for me: I sat on a sofa thousands of miles away drinking coffee while the participants argued their respective cases, disagreeing on practically everything. Jim Waley might have “lift[ed] the lid, a little bit, on what is a very complex and protracted issue” but, when we peered inside, it was as murky and intractable as always.

It’s not about finding answers or exploring the merits and deficiencies of each position. It’s about pitting one side against another and trusting that the sparks will fly. Toss some lions and Christians into the Coliseum, let the audience settle back to enjoy the show, and the network and its sponsors laugh all the way to the bank.

You may never have seen a Nine town meeting but you know the formula. It’s Jerry Springer or Ricky Lake for the intelligentsia, though with far less intellectual and emotional honesty—on the part of the producers—than you find on Springer’s show, or Lake’s.

The most obscene aspect of the exercise is that hundreds of thousands of Australians will switch off their TV sets believing that by becoming “better informed” they have in some way contributed to finding a solution to the Middle East crisis, whereas all they have really done is allow themselves to be briefly entertained by the spectacle of other people’s misery.

In Australia, this confusion of feeling with action is called the politics of the warm inner glow.

The warm inner glow is a perjorative term that Australian conservatives use to describe the liberal preference for feeling good at the expense of making tough decisions. In a speech to the right-wing H.R. Nicholls Society, Dr Colin Howard defines the warm inner glow as

an attitude… characterized by a marked preference for feeling good rather than doing good. It dislikes facts that prevent the beholder from feeling good. That is not surprising. We all like feeling good and we all dislike facts that deprive us of that pleasure. But what matters is how we react to those facts.

Nothing illustrates the warm inner glow better than this sign, on a door not far from where I live:

Sign on door: Escaped refugees welcome here

An escaped refugee is no more likely to knock on this door than a Martian. For all I know the inhabitants of the household are kind, well-meaning people—but their hollow gesture irritates me beyond belief. What worth is an offer of shelter and assistance made in the almost certain knowledge that it will never be taken up?

Late last year, Don Arthur addressed this question in an essay published in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Web Diary.

Most criticisms of Australia’s elite consists of variations on the same themes - pragmatism versus idealism, responsibility versus deliberate impotence, realism versus mythology and healthy cynicism versus naivety. The criticisms are fuelled by irritation at a group whose moral purity seems to come at no personal cost - citizens who claim the right of free speech but will not support the actions needed to protect a free society from its enemies.

I share the conservative exasperation with those “who claim the right of free speech but will not support the actions needed to protect a free society from its enemies.” But it cuts both ways. Many conservatives (and, it seems to me, most warbloggers) attempt—by carelessly throwing around terms such as anti-Semite, moral equivocator, and terrorist sympathizer—to deny to others the right of free speech they claim for themselves, a right that is the absolute foundation of any democratic society.

It’s for that reason that I was so deeply dispirited by Mike Sanders’ statement: And the equivocation and silence of the non war bloggers is deafening.

Mike’s assertion troubles me since it seems to imply:

  • that it is incumbent on every “non war blogger” to transform their weblog into a platform from which they decry terrorism and suicide bombing
  • that in this sharp and precise time, when one must be either for the warbloggers or against them, the failure to politicize one’s weblog equates to moral cowardice.

As if spewing an endless stream of right-wing populist rhetoric requires even the tiniest shard of moral courage.

People blog for a multitude of reasons. Like everything in life, some weblogs have greater value and/or more serious intent than others. But the demand, no matter how well-intentioned, that bloggers all fall into line and support any particular political, religious, or moral position strikes me as not only totalitarian, it also demeans the sacrifices of everyone who has fought or suffered or died in defence of our democratic freedoms.

A few days ago, I posted excerpts from two biographies of Samuel Beckett, under the title Why Samuel Beckett joined the Resistance, a post that was correctly interpreted as a statement of protest against the growing tide of anti-Semitism around the world. I have spent the last couple of weeks reading, watching movies and documentaries, and thinking about the Holocaust. But my Beckett post was intended to communicate much more.

When World War II broke out, Beckett—as an Irish citizen living in France — felt no obligation to fight the Germans on behalf of either the British or the French. Instead he intended to “live quietly as a neutral alien, to tend to his writing and to see if he could help any of his friends who were still in Paris.” When it became clear that the Nazis were arresting and killing his Jewish friends, “he found himself unable to remain neutral any longer.” At that point he joined the French Resistance, putting his own life at risk.

Like Beckett, I have little faith in either religion or politics and I respond with deep mistrust towards anyone who attempts to coerce me on either religious or political grounds. I believe that the only thing that lasts is art, and that even art is ephemeral.

Beckett was in many ways an exemplary artist. Wanting nothing more than to write, he put that desire to one side and went to war—not for some abstract ideal, but for entirely personal reasons. His Jewish friends were being persecuted and so he took up arms against their persecutors. Beckett, whose whole life was devoted to words, abandoned words and took action.

Warbloggers confuse words with action. And, not surprisingly, their moral purity seems to come at little personal cost.

In that way, warbloggers are hardly different from the liberal do-gooders they castigate. The ultimate aim of the warblogger is to make himself and his readers feel good. This privileging of words and feelings over meaningful action most resembles a kind of emotional pornography; it constitutes the most grievous insult to those who are suffering and dying on both sides.

What a fucking irony. That I, who am regarded by all of my closest friends as irretrievably conservative, should be mounting an argument against conservative orthodoxy. And yet, how could anyone find the glib assertions, pompous certainty, and smug intolerance of the warbloggers anything but deeply offensive? Particularly when compared with the everyday actions and responsibilities of those who are truly engaged.

This morning I watched as Jim Waley and his Sunday crew, having avoided “the Israeli military on the outskirts of Jenin by using back trails to walk into the city” suddenly stumbled across an Israeli patrol. The young lieutenant in command warned the Australians that they had entered restricted territory but then he agreed to be interviewed. Waley asked the officer what he was most afraid of. The Israeli thought for a long, long time. Then he answered. He was afraid of making the wrong decision in a firefight. He was afraid that a choice he made would result in the death or wounding of either his troops or of Palestinian civilians.

I am not yet sufficiently cynical to believe that, in taking such a long time to formulate his answer, he was trying to recall a training lecture he’d attended on how to handle foreign journalists. Rather I believe that he was running through in his mind the catalogue of all the good and bad decisions he’d made, of everything he’d learned during training and since, before attempting to choose one fear out of a hundred or more. The interview could have been a setup yet he came across to me as the kind of soldier who stands as a credit to any army.

Strapping on explosives and blowing up yourself and others is pathetic when measured against the willingness to accept total responsibility for the lives of the men under your command while trying at the same time to minimize civilian casualties.

As I see it, the combined outpourings of all the warbloggers have less worth than one of that young lieutenant’s toenail clippings. I wish Jim Waley had asked him another question. I wish he’d asked the officer what kind of men make the most honorable, dependable, and courageous soldiers. I doubt the Israeli would have answered, “Self-important bombastic loudmouth warbloggers.”

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Thursday 25 April 2002

Lest we forget

Today is Anzac Day, the national holiday that commemorates the landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) at Gallipoli in the Dardanelles on April 25, 1915. Earlier in the week the Sydney Morning Herald published an article by two historians (Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson) in which they offered a “corrective to 10 myths about the Anzac campaign.” As an introduction, they wrote:

Anzac Day is our national day. It has quite eclipsed Australia Day, which has become an embarrassment for some, a day at the cricket for others, and a long weekend for most. No orgy of fuzzy sentimentality or outpouring of national pride takes place in January. Such emotions are the exclusive preserve of April 25. This phenomenon is unstoppable. For better or worse, it is on Anzac Day that we celebrate being a nation and becoming a nation.

Yet this devotion to Anzac Day is puzzling. The choice of a military action almost a century ago as a founding event excludes more than half the population: women, indigenous people and most ethnic groups. And if we insist on equating nationhood with death in battle, why choose a defeat by an adversary then regarded as the sick man of Europe instead of our role in the war’s culminating battles in 1918 against Germany?

Anzac Day does seem to be unstoppable. For increasing numbers of young Australians, a visit to the Gallipoli battlegrounds is now seen as an essential stop on their first overseas trip. They, along with millions of other Australians, clearly understand—as Prior and Wilson do not—that no-one is excluded when (to use the words of the official historian, C.W. Bean) “enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship and endurance” are remembered and acknowledged.

Why choose to celebrate a defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) rather than one of the victories against the Germans on the Western Front? The Australian War Memorial suggests one reason:

Australians recognise 25 April as an occasion of national commemoration. Commemorative services are held at dawn, the time of the original landing, across the nation. Later in the day ex-servicemen and women meet and join in marches through the major cities and many smaller centres. Commemorative ceremonies are held at war memorials around the country. It is a day when Australians reflect on the many different meanings of war.

A defeat affords us the opportunity to discover meanings for war that the celebration of a victory would not.

For me, Anzac Day offers an antidote to the relentless obsession with success that exerts such a corrosive influence on our current values and behavior. Anzac Day draws our attention to what Ivan Morris calls The Nobility of Failure, enabling us to:

identify… emotionally with these individuals who waged their forlorn struggle against overwhelming odds; and the fact that all their efforts are crowned with failure lends them a pathos which characterizes the general vanity of human endeavor and makes them the most loved and evocative of heroes.

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Tuesday 30 April 2002

The significance of the Yasukuni Shrine

Today the Japanese Prime Minister, Koizumi Junichiro arrived in Australia for bilateral trade negotiations. Last week, the Returned Serviceman’s League (RSL) protested against Koizumi’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, as did the governments of China and South Korea. (The Australian government was non-committal.)

The Yasukuni Shrine honors about 2.5 million Japanese war dead, among them 14 Class-A war criminals such as World War II Prime Minister Tojo Hideki. Koizumi’s explanation that his visit was part of Japan’s spring peace festival failed to placate the opposition.

The Victorian RSL president, Bruce Ruxton, was reported as saying that Koizumi’s action was “typical” of the Japanese. “The Japanese are like that. It is in their genes … they are war-like,” he added.

Though it is difficult to conceive of a contemporary nation less warlike than the Japanese, many of whom strongly oppose even allowing their Self-Defense Forces to travel overseas to assist in U.N. peacekeeping missions, visits to Yasukuni by Japanese political leaders are a source of ongoing tension between Japan and its neighbors.

After the Japanese defeat in 1945, any government support for the shrine was regarded as unconstitutional and the shrine became a private religious organization. However in 1985, on the advice of a private advisory body that official visits were constitutional, Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro visited Yasukuni on August 15th, the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II.

A recent Xinhua News Agency story quotes Li Liangzhi, a professor with the People’s University of China:

Koizumi had delivered a speech at the Memorial Hall of the War of Resistance to Japanese Aggression during his visit to China last October, in which he admitted Japan was responsible for the aggression, said he pondered deeply about the aggression carried out during the war and expressed heartfelt sorrow for it and apologized profoundly.

Six months later, while his words were still reverberating in Chinese people’s ears, Koizumi visited the shrine again.

If the shrine did not house the remains of convicted war criminals, it is doubtful that official visits would provoke such antagonism from Asian countries who still regard the Japanese with bitterness over their wartime atrocities.

Most Japanese raised in the postwar period have only a sketchy knowledge of the events of the Pacific war since Japanese history textbooks have always presented a sanitized view of Japan’s wartime actions. More importantly, there is a deep-seated belief amongst many Japanese that they are the true victims of the war since Japan is the only country that was subjected to atomic attack.

Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni should also be seen in the context of a widespread Japanese cynicism about the validity of the war-crimes tribunals. The entry on “war crimes trials” in the Kodansha Illustrated Encyclopedia of Japan (the standard English language reference work) says:

The term “war crimes” denotes activity in wartime that contravenes recognized standards of military conduct. Theoretically, it should include illegal activity by all participants and should exclude activity not clearly considered illegal. In the aftermath of the war in the Pacific, however, neither condition was applied. The various wartime and postwar trials and tribunals in the Far East considered only Japanese acts, not acts committed by the Allies. As regards the second condition, the bulk of the prosecution at the Tokyo Trial rested on charges not clearly considered illegal. For example, the principal charge at Tokyo was that of “aggression”; yet as recently as 1944, three Allied nations (France, Great Britain, and the United States) had agreed that aggressive war was not a crime. On both scores, then, the war crimes prosecutions relating to the Pacific War are open to the charge, first made by some of the defendants, that they were victors’ justice—revenge dressed up in the trappings of legality.

This Japanese reluctance to take the war crimes trials seriously, while questionable in regard to the Tokyo Trials, is understandable in the case of General Yamashita Tomoyuki who was tried and executed in the Philippines in 1946 for atrocities he had expressly forbidden, committed by Navy troops from whom he was cut off and over whom he had no direct command.

The end result of the tribunals was that, in the words of Meirion and Susie Harries, the war criminals “were converted into near-martyrs, invested with an aura of heroism they had hardly possessed in life.” This is the real reason that Japanese Prime Ministers will continue to visit the Yasukuni Shrine.

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Friday 24 May 2002

Alec Campbell, RIP

Last surviving Anzac, Alec Campbell, as a young soldierAt 11am today, we took time out from the UltraDev class to observe a minute’s silence for Alec Campbell, the last known survivor of the Gallipoli campaign—not just in Australia but anywhere in the world. Mr Campbell enlisted in June 1915 when he was 16 and died last week in Tasmania at the age of 103.

The Prime Minister, John Howard, who—by promoting selfishness and hollow individualism for the last eight years—has done everything within his power to divide Australians and undermine the values embodied in the Anzac tradition, paid tribute to Alec Campbell:

In all these ways, love, endeavour, challenge and service, Alec Campbell, Gallipoli’s last sentinel, embodied the Anzac spirit that we have come here to honour.

Howard, a consummate politician, ignores the gulf between the ideals he describes and the reality—the absolute antithesis of those ideals—that he has labored so long and hard to construct. Paying lip service to the Anzac tradition, he reduces it to kitsch, illustrating Kundera’s maxim:

Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements.

The Anzac tradition is the attenuated thread that connects me to Australia. I have little interest in the everyday concerns of the society I live in and yet, on days like today, I find myself moved to the depths of my being by the “Anzac spirit,” even as another part of me realizes it is simply another of Kundera’s beautiful lies.

Though touched by the song, Sabina did not take her feeling seriously. She knew only too well that the song was a beautiful lie. As soon as kitsch is recognized for the lie it is, it moves into the realm of non-kitsch, thus losing its authoritarian power and becoming as touching as any other human weakness. For none among us is superman enough to escape kitsch completely. No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.

What then is the truth of the Anzac spirit? It is the foundation upon which our uniquely Australian kitsch is built. To paraphrase Kundera:

The first tear says: how nice to recall the sacrifices of our war dead.

The second tear says: how nice to be moved, together with all Australians, by the sacrifices of our war dead.

It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.

The brotherhood of all Australians will be possible only on a base of Anzac kitsch.

Alec Campbell as an elderly manBut equally, by recognizing the attempt to appropriate Alec Campbell’s values of sacrifice and service, we can see through Howard’s wretched lie, demolish its authoritarian power, and restore the poignancy that lies at the heart of the Anzac tradition. Especially as we are forced to concede that the society Campbell and his comrades fought so desperately to defend is now a travesty of almost every value they held dear.

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Sunday 26 May 2002

On moral clarity

William Bennett, Moral clarity isn’t simplistic (as published in The Dallas Morning News, May 12, 2002):

Moral clarity has worked. It worked in Afghanistan, where the president brought together a coalition of nations around the world that condemned the attacks on the United States and supported punishing those responsible for the attacks.

Robert Young Pelton, The real war on terrorism (as published in Salon, April 23, 2002):

I mean, have we kicked out the bad guys? Shouldn’t we be attacking Pakistan, isn’t that where all the bad guys come from? I mean there’s this amazing disconnect between common sense and government rhetoric. Most of the people who were killed in Afghanistan were Pakistanis, not Afghans.

…the media needs to wake up and say, “Hey, wait a second. We’re supporting a military dictator who took power in a coup, who’s one of the main sponsors of terrorism, who paid for the camps over there, who’s educating and entertaining and training thousands of militants to go fight inside Afghanistan against us.” It’s like, whoa, wait a second, why is he our best friend?

…when you look at Daniel Pearl, he wasn’t kidnapped by Afghans. He wasn’t murdered by Afghans. He was murdered by people with strong and lengthy links to the Pakistani [intelligence agency, the] ISI…

…these guys are all from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Why aren’t we fighting a war in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and Egypt? Why are they our allies?

Fifteen of the nineteen alleged September 11 hijackers were Saudi nationals. As is Osama Bin Laden. Moral clarity indeed. It sounds more like the title of an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.

Moral Clarity, now playing at a multiplex near you. There’s the risk of confusing the audience by casting Saudis and Pakistanis as both Arnie’s allies and his enemies. But a top-class writer like Bill Bennett should be able to paper over any holes in the storyline. After all, it comes from the award-winning production company that brought you The Bay of Pigs Invasion, The Tonkin Gulf Incident, The Overthrow of Salvador Allende, The Iran-Contra Affair, and Iraqgate.

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Wednesday 26 June 2002

The more things change…

At wood s lot, a link to Bush’s Grim Vision by Nat Parry:

Bush’s grim vision is of a modern “crusade,” as he once put it, with American military forces striking preemptively at “evil-doers” wherever they live, while U.S. citizens live under a redefined Constitution with rights that can be suspended selectively by one man. Beyond the enormous sacrifices of blood, money and freedom that this plan entails, there is another problem: the strategy offers no guarantee of greater security for Americans and runs the risk of deepening the pool of hatred against the United States…

The American people may learn too late that relying on repression to gain security can mean sacrificing freedom without actually achieving greater security. As counterinsurgency experts have long argued, only a wise balance between reasonable security and smart policies to address legitimate grievances can reduce violence to manageable levels over the long term. Often, repression simply breeds new generations of bitter enemies.

Saburo Ienaga (The Pacific War) explains the connection between state control and the Japanese slide into war:

The pre-war state kept the populace in a powerful vise: on one side were the internal security laws with their restrictions on freedom of speech and thought; on the other side was the conformist education that blocked the growth of a free consciousness and purposive activity for political ends. The vise was tightened whenever any individual or popular resistance challenged reckess military action. These laws and public education, used as instruments of coercion and manipulation, were the decisive factors that made it impossible for the Japanese people to stop their country from launching the Pacific War.

In Japan’s War, Edwin P. Hoyt describes the Japanese military adventure in China:

Preparations would begin now, in the spring [of 1942], for the great offensive in China, to be carried out against Chiang’s Szechuan Province in the fall. As the generals looked at the map of China, the future appeared bright. The little Rising Sun flags stuck in the map, from the Siberian border all the way south to Hongkong, and beyond, and inland past Peking and down on a line to Hankow, showed the enormous amount of Chinese territory under Japanese army control. But the little flags were misleading, as General Shunroku Hata, commander of the China Expeditionary Force, knew very well. In the north the Chinese Communist armies slipped in and around the Japanese installations, burning, shooting, killing by night. By day the Japanese controlled the countryside, by night it was Chinese territory. And in the south the same was true. Guerillas operated in every province. Every truck, every train had to be escorted by troops; if not, they were prime targets for the guerillas. The Japanese claimed they had China in their grip; the reverse was true; they were still bogged down in a war that demanded more men and more guns and more equipment every month. By the winter of 1942 the need to “settle” the China incident—which meant complete the conquest of all China—had become so ingrained an article of faith with the militarists who controlled the army that there was no way of turning back. Once the China incident was settled, the militarists promised themselves, all else would be simple.

In 1937, Emperor Hirohito had asked how long it would take to end the China Incident. “One month,” replied the War Minister, General Hajime Sugiyama. In 1941 General Sugiyama confidently told the Emperor that Japanese operations in the South Pacific would be completed within three months. In four years, Sugiyama had learned nothing. Who said that experience is the best teacher?

Book cover: The 100 million people of the Showa Period, Japanese War HIstory, Volume 3, The China-Japan WarA refusal to study the Japanese counter-insurgency war in China or the failure of the French in Indo-China led to America’s humiliating defeat in Vietnam. General Westmoreland famously asked: “Why should I study the lessons of the French? They haven’t won a war since Napoleon.”

My ten volume illustrated Japanese War History devotes four volumes to the China Incident and another four to the Pacific War. Looking through countless photographs of the Chinese campaign one can’t help but note the uncanny resemblance between these pictures and those taken during the Vietnam War. Across a thirty year period, only the nationality of the combatants and their weapons and uniforms have changed. Everything else is the same: the terrain, the strategy, the tactics, the bombed cities, the devastated countryside, the military and civilian casualties, and the final catastrophic outcome.

Yet Bush and Sharon both seem to be saying: “Trust me, this time it’ll be different.”

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Sunday 21 July 2002

My military ambition

Not so long ago—in response to my throwaway remark that the German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn looks like a Panzer commander—someone commented: “Resemblance to a member of the armed forces is a good thing? Each to his own I guess.” I suspect that this attitude is not unusual, that either disdain for or ambivalence towards the military constitutes the prevailing orthodoxy in our little corner of Blogaria, though both Joseph Duemer and Steve Himmer have written honestly about their fascination with war:

About half an hour into the film, I think, comes the famous scene with Robert Duval as an Air Cav Colonel. (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”) I’m sitting there in the dark theater holding MK’s hand & thinking other thoughts when this pops into my mind: “I really missed out not going to Vietnam.” The particular scene burning itself into my retinas at that moment has Francis Ford Coppola himself playing a news photographer who is photographing the war going on around him, directing the soldiers so that it will play more effectively on the evening news. (Think of Conrad’s anonymous narrator’s relationship to Marlow in Heart of Darkness.) Immediately upon uttering this desire to have gone to war, even silently, I retracted it. What, are you fucking crazy? I think it is part of the genius of Apocalypse Now that it invites the viewer into the excitement & romance of war, then pulls the rug out from under him. (Yes, him.) Like Steve Himmer, I have tried to understand the romantic attractions of combat. In fifth & sixth grade I must have read 200 identically bound books for boys from my school library that detailed battles from Ticonderoga to Iwo Jima, so my psyche was saturated early with romanticism. Vietnam was still in the future—the nation’s & mine.

Joseph Duemer, reading & writing

I have a fascination with war and wartime violence that’s impossible to explain. On one hand, I abhor it and it horrifies me-violence makes me feel physically ill, especially when I’m the one being violent. At the same time, I imagine violence on the scale of battle to be something only understandable when in the midst of it, and even then all that can be understood is the tiny, tiny piece experienced by one body or mind. I guess, more than anything, I have a need to ‘understand’ war intellectually and emotionally (though I don’t expect anyone ever really has)—mostly because I’m so horribly afraid of it, and yet I’ve heard all my life that going to war is what galvanizes men. What defines a generation. What marks the occasion of capital-H History.

Steve Himmer, One Pot Meal

Reading these posts a few months ago, I immediately empathized with Joseph and Steve. I wanted to be a professional soldier when I was young, so much so that when the recruiting officer from the Royal Military College visited my high school I was one of the few to request an interview and collect a sheaf of application forms for my father to sign. He refused. “You can join the army when you turn 21,” he told me. He’d fought the Japanese in the South Pacific.

Instead I joined the Sydney University Regiment and loved it: the weapons, the cameraderie, the small arms tactics and long range patrolling that formed the foundation of Australian Army doctrine. At the end of my third year as a part-time soldier, a few of us were selected for what was seen as a prestigious assignment—acting as the enemy in an exercise for officer candidates who would eventually be assigned as platoon commanders in Vietnam. We were trucked to a rain forest a couple of hundred kilometers south of Sydney where, for the two weeks that the exercise lasted, the rain poured down relentlessly.

By that stage of my military career, I’d already begun to have misgivings about our involvement in Vietnam, particularly after learning how to search and destroy a surprisingly realistic “Vietnamese” village. And, ever the bookworm, I’d read various histories of the Indo-China War and even Mae Tse-Tung’s On Guerilla War. I would eventually reach the conclusion that in their lickspittle eagerness to please the Americans our politicians had committed the Australian Army to an unwinnable war.

With a cheerful amorality, my pals and I switched sides. We exchanged our jungle green fatigues for black pajama uniforms and applied all our skills to making life a misery for the hapless officer trainees. We harrassed them at night, laid ambushes for them by day, and melted away into the jungle when they tried to pursue us. The officers in command had done everything to ensure that, apart from not using live rounds, the conditions were as close to real combat as they could engineer. Despite being constantly cold, wet, hungry, and exhausted we had the best time. Our bodies were young, lean, and hard; our minds totally attuned to our role. Having absorbed everything the regular army instructors had taught us, we were better trained than most of the US Army troops who landed in Vietnam. We played a cat-and-mouse game that seemed utterly authentic—up until the point where we fired our blank ammunition, the designated dead and wounded fell down, and then stood up and brushed themselves off when the umpire’s whistle blew. It was real, it was a farce, and it changed me profoundly.

A few weeks later university classes started again. Though my friends happily resumed their part-time military careers, those two weeks in the rain forest had consequences for me that the Army had hardly intended. Briefly becoming a Vietcong guerilla allowed me to see the conflict from the other side. The experience crystallized all the reading and thinking I’d done. My ambition to become a soldier evaporated, as my father had no doubt hoped it would (though not for the reasons he’d anticipated).

Out of curiosity I went to an anti-war rally but the protestors were contemptible compared to my comrades in the regiment and the professional soldiers who’d trained us. Despite my belief that the war was unjust and futile, I found it impossible to discard the loyalty I felt towards the Australians fighting against the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong, with whom I now also identified. I’d manouvered myself into an untenable position, particularly since I was still eligible to be called up for active service.

L1A1 Self Loading Rifle

Any possible outer conflict disappeared when my letter arrived from the Army Department. The ball engraved with my birthday had not tumbled out of the barrel. I’d not been drafted. I’d “won” the lottery. My request for a discharge was granted. I never bought a lottery ticket again.

Nikon FI resolved the inner conflict by buying a camera and then another, soon handling a Nikon F with the same fluid ease with which I’d once used a 7.62 mm L1A1 self-loading rifle. I was now 21, committed to nothing other than making beautiful photographs. With cameras draped on my shoulders and around my neck, torn jeans, and shoulder-length hair, I looked just like the Dennis Hopper character in Apocalypse Now. You’d have laughed at the idea that I’d once wanted to be a soldier. But it’s true.

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Friday 09 August 2002

A disagreement or three

Burningbird concluded her post The Debate falters, lying broken in the dust like this:

However, me thinks the debate on the Iraq invasion between us has run its course.

Crikey, Bb! It’s all well and good for you to declare the debate over, but I’m stuck in the middle of a “discourse” with Eric Olsen. And, the way these warbloggers argue, I think I’d have less grief converting my Movable Type templates and all my archives to XHTML 2.0 and CSS 2.1.

But, since I try to finish anything I start, I guess I’ll have to press on. Perhaps the best way to do this is to comment on Olsen’s key statements (which I’ve italicized) in the order he made them.

The museum [in Hiroshima], the city, and the country emphasize peace and conflict resolution not because they don’t feel historical guilt for WWII, but because they do.

The museum and the city emphasize peace because Hiroshima is one of only two cities to have been subjected to an atomic bomb attack.

Odd that Japan emphasizes peace by consistently ranking fourth in its percentage share of world military expenditure (after the USA, Russia, and France but ahead of the UK, Germany, China, and Saudi Arabia).

Japan emphasizes conflict resolution not because of any feelings of historical guilt for WWII but because Japanese decision making has been based for centuries on achieving consensus between conflicting parties.

The town and the museum almost revels in the details of the destruction wrought by the bomb, not out of self-pity, but out of a fundamental sense of sorrow and guilt FOR HAVING BROUGHT THIS DESTRUCTION UPON THEMSELVES. Look carefully at the “message” of the museum…

The “message” of the museum to which Olsen refers—note the artful use of quotation marks—is not actually the message of the museum in any official sense, but an interpretation of the museum’s meaning by a private group of Japanese citizens headed by Miyoko Kono:

The context used in this web page was edited by “The Group to Convey the Spirit of Hiroshima” based on the materials borrowed from Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation.

The atomic bomb brought bitter remorse, not from those who dropped it, but from those whom it was dropped upon. Why remorse? Because they believe they deserved it.

Actually the atomic bomb brought not bitter remorse but an overwhelming sense of self-pity, as Paul Musgrave rightly noted. And, far from believing they deserved it, the atomic bomb attacks served mainly to reinforce the ninonjinron, the theory of Japanese uniqueness (“We are the only people in the history of the world to have been subjected to atomic bomb attacks.”)

Immediately after the war, MacArthur and the American occupying force found remarkably little resentment in a decimated populace that had only weeks before fought with suicidal zeal for the honor of the emperor.

Against whom, precisely, had the populace fought with suicidal zeal? The B-29’s that were raining fire on every major Japanese city? (Apart from Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata, and Nagasaki, which had been reserved as atomic bomb targets.) What weapons did they employ in their fight for the honor of the emperor? With what terrifying fanaticism did this civilian population, who were overwhelmingly the victims of the air war against the Japanese home islands, wield their shovels, sandbags, and buckets of water?

And since we didn’t enslave their entire population, or ship their women off to “comfort camps,” or plunder whatever treasure remained in the country, but in fact helped them to rebuild on every front, no opportunity was afforded to transfer any of this guilt onto America.

No rational person would deny America’s magnanimity towards its vanquished foes, but let us not also forget that the United States poured billions of dollars in aid into Japan in order to create a bulwark against Soviet and Chinese communism. One might best characterize America’s behavior as enlightened self-interest—something the Japanese understood all too well.

Olsen summarizes the Japanese attitude towards defeat as

We were all hopped up on the religion of nationalism; we began a war of aggression; we got our asses kicked; we deserved what we got.

All hopped up on the religion of nationalism. Yes, definitely. Somewhat like contemporary America.

We began a war of aggression. Yes, although some would suggest that Roosevelt deftly manouvered the Japanese into a position where it was inevitable that they would attack the United States.

We got our asses kicked. Absolutely.

We deserved what we got. Not in any way at all. Most Japanese have been taught a highly sanitized version of the history of the Pacific War. They have hardly any knowledge of the atrocities committed by Japanese forces in China, Korea, and South East Asia and little interest in revisiting the past. Primarily, as I’ve noted above, a majority of Japanese—who know nothing about the three hundred thousand killed in the American firebombing campaign—see themselves as the unique victims of the atomic bomb attacks.

Well, that’s pretty much it for Olsen’s first post. Next I’ll address his reply to my previous post. After that I’ll explain why, despite what Olsen might have been told by “the hundreds of Japanese from all walks of life,” words count for nothing. Only actions have meaning and, overwhelmingly, Japanese actions are consistent not with guilt and remorse but rather a sense of victimization and self-pity. Finally, I might get around to explaining why I believe that Truman was almost certainly justified in dropping the first atomic bomb (and perhaps had little alternative to dropping the second).

In the meantime, I’d like to suggest an Honor Roll of Warbloggers, which would display next to each name: the warblog URL, the number of years of active military service, and the likelihood of the warblogger’s being called up to fight against Iraq. It is commonly observed by students of military history that civilian enthusiasm for going to war is inversely proportional to the sum of combat experience and eligibility for military service.

Or, as Camille Paglia said in her interview with Andrew Sullivan:

When our best and brightest expect a servant class to shed their blood in the nation’s defense, we’re starting to look like late imperial Rome.

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Monday 12 August 2002

Riben Guizi

G. Allen Johnson’s review of Minoru Matsui’s Riben Guizi (Japanese Devils) begins:

It was never a secret that Japan’s militaristic regime during the 1930s and early ’40s was among the most brutal in human history - except to the Japanese people, who were largely oblivious, thanks to their government’s propaganda. Whereas many of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis didn’t come to light until after the German surrender in World War II, Japan’s M.O. was well-known to the rest of the world ever since its invasion of Manchuria in the early ’30s.

It is something the nation - which has not had an official military since World War II - still struggles with today, and especially today. Recently, Japan’s wartime activities have stirred fresh controversy because official history books taught in schools do not mention the atrocities.

I’ll refrain from writing more about Japanese attitudes to the Pacific War until I finish watching Matsui’s documentary.

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Tuesday 13 August 2002

The nation prepares for war (1)

Student nurses practice fighting with wooden swords
Student nurses from the Japanese Red Cross Society Training
School practice kendo (wooden sword fighting), June 14, 1937

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Wednesday 04 September 2002

The inevitability of defeat

A couple of months ago I decided to take a break from the subject that has occupied most of my attention for the last few years: the Pacific War. On Monday night, the opening episodes of Band of Brothers aired on Australian TV. I taped them, watched the first hour last night, and will watch some more tonight when I finish this post.

This morning, as I left for the city, I plucked John Ray Skates’s The Invasion of Japan from the shelf and slipped it into my backpack. It’s time, I thought to myself, to return to the subject closest to my heart.

It was no coincidence. Watching the airborne soldiers train for the Normandy invasion had set me thinking about the two stage invasion planned for Kyushu in November 1945 (codenamed OLYMPIC) and the Tokyo/Yokohama area in March 1946 (CORONET). Skates writes:

The troop list for OLYMPIC called for fourteen divisions; CORONET called for twenty-five. The Allies assaulted the Normandy beaches with five divisions and dropped three airborne divisions behind the beaches to secure critical areas.

Forty divisions of American soldiers, thousands of land- and carrier-based airplanes, countless ships and carriers. Normandy seems almost trivial compared to the anticipated cost of invading the Japanese home islands. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff expected that the Japanese would mount an even more implacable resistance than that displayed on Saipan, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and the other Pacific islands.

Tonight, eating dinner and reading Skates’s introduction, I was reminded of a story Donald Richie told about the Japanese director, Yasujiro Ozu.

In 1943 Ozu, who had been drafted by the military to make propaganda films, was sent to Singapore. Showing the same lack of enthusiasm for the war effort as the writer Nagai Kafu, he spent his time rejecting the script suggestions of his army superiors and watching the huge stockpile of American films confiscated by the Japanese.

“The film that impressed Ozu most,” writes Donald Richie in his book on the director, “was Welles’s Citizen Kane

He looked at it again and again. It was apparently the technique of the film that most interested him, and according to Yoshimura [another Japanese director in Singapore at the time] he kept shaking his head in wonder over this effect or that. Thereafter, whenever asked his favorite foreign film, he always said Citizen Kane, though it is impossible to imagine a picture more antithetical to his own.

Poster for Walt Disney's FantasiaDuring the season of Ozu’s films Donald Richie curated for the Sydney Film Festival in 1994, he told an anecdote—not mentioned in his book—about Ozu’s Singapore sojourn.

According to Richie, another American film much admired by Ozu was Disney’s Fantasia, the animated feature with a score by Leopold Stokowski. Richie recalled Ozu’s saying that Fantasia took him totally by surprise, causing him to re-evaluate Japan’s chances of winning the war.

“Until then,” Ozu had said, “like most Japanese I’d accepted the government propaganda that our military forces were invincible and the defeats our armies had recently suffered were only minor setbacks. But when I saw Fantasia, I thought for the first time: If the Americans can make movies like this, then Japan is in deep trouble.”

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Saturday 07 September 2002

Taking up arms against evil

David Weinberger called AKMA’s attention to this article from the New York Times, which poses the theological challenge, “Where was God on September 11?”

Though the Peter Steinfels article is trite and superficial, AKMA’s response was simultaneously heartfelt and sophisticated:

It’s a question much older than last year, of course, and it seems awfully presumptuous for Christians to fret about 9/11 as though they had never heard of the Holocaust. Indeed, the effort to annihilate Judaiism bears an even more penetrating theological twist, since that persecution derived specifically from people’s identity as Israel, as God’s chosen people. Let’s not ask where God was last September until we have a decent response to the question of where God was at Buchenwald.

Which, of course, we won’t be able to do.

That’s why the wisest responses to catastrophic calamities take more of the texture of how we live than what words we say. Our words remain one-dimensional, our words are the same devices that clueless marketers use to whip us into frenzies of self-serving desire. Much as I respect the Rt. Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams, he missed a trick when he lamented that “all I had was words.” He had his respectful silence to offer, too—and the energies and integrity and commitments with which he enacts that silence.

AKMA clearly privileges action over words—silence is action, he says, when enacted with passion and commitment. Perhaps as a result of my Catholic upbringing, in which theory and practice rarely coincided, I believe that actions weigh heavily, whereas words are as light and insubstantial as vapor. A person’s behavior speaks more eloquently than anything they might say.

Accordingly I can’t reconcile AKMA’s citing the Holocaust and Buchenwald with what he wrote in a subsequent post on the same subject:

It’s the mark of humans’ inclination to ascertain for themselves that some causes are so important that other people must die, whether those causes be personal or political or religious. That’s one of the cornerstone reasons that pacifists decline to take part in coercive violence: Cain’s attack on Abel, the murderous violence that makes someone else’s life pay the price of my envy or moral outrage or thirst for justice, arrogates to human judgment (however apparently well-justified) the prerogative that belongs to God alone.

The contradiction, as it appears to me, is that the surviving Jews in Buchenwald, Auschwitz, and the other death camps were not liberated by pacifists. Those few Jews left alive were set free by courageous men and women who had fought their way across Europe against determined German resistance—men and women who, whether they were motivated by moral outrage, a thirst for justice, the instinct for self-preservation, or a sense of loyalty to their comrades, took part in a sustained campaign of murderous and coercive violence that resulted in the defeat of the Nazis.

Were they wrong? Or mistaken? If so, what was the pacifist strategy for defeating Hitler, ending the occupation of Europe, and stopping the Holocaust? (And, by extension, for vanquishing the Japanese military forces and liberating the subjugated peoples of Asia.)

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Monday 16 September 2002

A metaphysical brothel for emotions

Joseph Duemer wrote:

Ad captandum: I finally figured out what it is about the warbloggers—like this one, who is typical: they are sentimentalists. The problem with sentimentality is that it obscures reality in a haze of ill-defined & manipulative feeling. And the Rottweiler’s sentimentality is no less sentimental because it is violent & vulgar. [cf warblogger watch]

I immediately recalled a Salon review of two biographies of film director John Ford in which Allen Barra asked: “How can an intelligent person be expected to react to the thick, rich blend of sentimentality, brutality, chauvinism and homilies in Ford’s films… without cringing just a little?”

And what are warblogs if not a thick blend of sentimentality, brutality, chauvinism and homilies? In Koestler’s phrase, a “metaphysical brothel for emotions.” Later in the review, Barra cites an anecdote that reveals much about Ford and the warblogging personality:

Both Eyman and McBride [Ford biographers] relate the story of a character actor named Frank Baker who came to Ford begging for money when his wife was in the hospital; Ford screamed at Baker, publicly humiliating him, and then punched him. Then he sent a man to see that Baker’s hospital bills were taken care of, proving once again that sentimentality is often found on the other side of the same counterfeit coin as brutality.

It turns out that Barra was paraphrasing Carl Jung, whose aphorism—Sentimentality is a superstructure covering brutality—Joseph later added, before pointing to his “long pissing contest with the warblogging community” (in the comments on this post at Warblogger Watch).

I spent a dispiriting twenty minutes reading the 73 comments. What struck me most forcefully was that Joseph Duemer’s opponents, who argued in favor of an invasion of Iraq (with or without UN sanction) failed to comprehend the meaning of sentimentality, even after Joseph carefully defined it for them:

Sentimentality is the substitution of emotion for intelligence; sentimentality requires of the reader assent to heightened feelings not legitimated by the matter at hand; sentimentality seeks to manipulate the reader’s emotional response by calls to conventional wisdom or attitudes; sentimentality seeks approval by reference to the vast warm blanket of majority opinion; sentimentality never, ever risks the disapproval of any member of its intended audience.

And the aesthetic expression of sentimentality is kitsch, as Kundera explains in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object. In the realm of kitsch, the dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme.

The feeling induced by kitsch must be a kind the multitudes can share. Kitsch may not, therefore, depend on an unusual situation; it must derive from the basic images people have engraved in their memories: the ungrateful daughter, the neglected father, children running on the grass, the motherland betrayed, first love…

In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions. It follows, then, that the true opponent of totalitarian kitsch is the person who asks questions. A question is like a knife that slices through the stage backdrop and gives us a look at what lies hidden beneath it.

“Children running on the grass,” “the motherland betrayed,” “husbands kissing their wives goodbye”—this is the emotional clip art with which the warbloggers attempt to mask the essential brutality of their cries for war. What’s entirely missing from their rhetoric is the compassion with which, as I’ve argued before, every great soldier balances a necessary ruthlessness.

To be sure, Saddam Hussein is an odious tyrant. But so are dozens of other leaders whose corrupt governments have the direct support of or have been placed in power by the United States. It’s this selective morality—which the warbloggers trick out as “moral clarity”—that needs to be questioned. Instead a morality of convenience is being endorsed in a heady rush of sentimental claptrap.

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Wednesday 25 September 2002

The nation prepares for war (2)

Student nurses practice fighting with wooden swords
War games: students from the Nakamura Primary School
in Tochigi Prefecture practice aerial combat (February, 1940)

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Thursday 10 October 2002

The nation prepares for war (03)

Firebomb disposal practice, Japan 1937
A scheme for using a galvanized iron protection shield when dealing with firebombs. Although the thermal power of a firebomb is very strong, it is said that if one can manage to get within about a meter the fire can be extinguished. To ensure that that the firefighter does not trip during the approach, the lower section of the shield is hinged. (August 1937)

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Tuesday 29 October 2002

Responsibility and sincerity

“The decision to go to war is not yours, its the decision of the state in which you live and if the state decides to go to war you are not responsible for that decision.”

Who said it? asked Norm Jenson. Any comments?

I won’t even hazard a guess since something tells me it’s a trick question, that the speaker is a cultural or political hero rather than a loathsome militarist. In any case, I’m less interested in who suggested the primacy of the state’s will over that of the individual than in an underlying assumption in the way the statement has been framed. It seems to me that there’s is a sting in the tail of that sentence in that it seeks not only to absolve the individual from the decision to go to war but also to excuse in advance any actions that individual might undertake on behalf of the state.

It’s almost an orthodoxy amongst contemporary democratic elites that, before taking part in any war, individuals should make a judgement about the justice of the cause for which they are being asked or ordered to fight. If a person decides that the state is acting wrongly in declaring war, then he or she is morally obliged to refuse to participate—no matter what the consequences. It’s this orthodoxy that makes the quoted statement so provocative (which was doubtless Norm’s intention). Moreover, if individuals have no say in the decision to go to war, are they still responsible for their behavior in that war? And by what standards is that behavior to be judged?

Instead of engaging in a tendentious discussion about the meaning or possibility of a “just war,” I’d rather address the circumstance of someone whose decision to participate—made in good faith—turns out to be based on faulty grounds. Perhaps the cause drew upon false or immoral beliefs or the state had covert reasons for declaring war or had indoctrinated its citizens to an extent that made it impossible for them to make an informed choice. One can think of a half-dozen wars in the last hundred years that meet at least one of those criteria.

This situation is addressed in Rebel Redemption Redux, an essay in Dissent magazine by Joshua Michael Zeitz about the ongoing argument in the American South about flying the Confederate flag. Zeitz adopts a critical attitude to both liberal and conservative opponents of the flag:

Even such staunch opponents of the Confederate flag as Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen frame their argument in such a way as to validate the spirit of the Old South. “The flag is the bloody shirt of Jim Crow and bullies with too much beer,” according to Cohen, who believes that in its post-Reconstruction context, the stars and bars are “no longer [emphasis added] the proud emblem of a lost cause.” In this sense, the liberal Cohen echoes conservative guru William Bennett in the latter’s cautious posture toward sons and daughters of the Confederate Army. “Although there were great individuals who fought for the Confederacy,” Bennett said earlier this year, “and their individual memory should be honored, what that flag stood for was slavery and the separation of the Union.” To their credit, Bennett and Cohen want the flag lowered. But they miss the larger point: those who fought for the “Lost Cause” should not be honored simply because they displayed intrepidity and prowess on the battlefield. What they fought for, rather than how well they fought for it, should determine the measure of respect accorded Confederate soldiers.

I’ll note in passing the way Zeitz subtly denigrates the Confederate army, by his use of the words “intrepidity” and “prowess,” terms one might usually apply to the behaviour of a Boy Scout troop. My New Oxford Dictionary of English defines intrepidity as: intrepid fearless; adventurous (often used for rhetorical or humorous effect). Zeitz uses it to covertly suggest that military virtues such as courage, determination, resilience, and self-sacrifice were only displayed by the Union forces.

By extension, members of the German and Japanese forces during World War II who fought according to the rules of war should be accorded no respect and neither should the American soldiers who fought honorably in the Vietnam War. In the world according to Joshua Michael Zeitz, honor and respect is due only to those who fight on the ideologically correct side.

Zeitz’s argument offends me partly because he is following the unfortunate contemporary practice of judging past behavior according to the standards of the present but mainly because he denies the possibility that one can act in good faith in support of what is subsequently determined to be either an unjust or a pointless cause.

I disagree with Zeitz because I value makoto, “the cardinal quality of the Japanese hero.” As Ivan Morris wrote in The Nobility of Failure:

Makoto is usually translated as ‘sincerity,’ but its connotations reach far deeper and wider than the English word and come closer to the spiritual power to which Saint Thomas More (one of the noblest failures in Western history) referred when he prayed for the grace ‘to set thys worlde at noughte.’ The focus of makoto varies in different periods of history, but its common denominator has always been a purity of motive, which derives from man’s longing for an absolute meaning out of time and from a realization that the social, political world is essentially a place of corruption whose materiality is incompatible with the demands of pure spirit and truth.

Sincerity precedes not only the realistic demands of established authority but also conventional rectitude; for its ultimate criterion is not the objective righteousness of a cause but the honesty with which the hero espouses it. Thus even an executed felon like the famous nineteenth-century robber, Nezumi Kozo, can be esteemed as a hero, since his motives were believed to be pure.

The Japanese heroic tradition places an inherent value on “the sincere, self-sacrificial act, a value which is entirely irrelevant to its practical effectiveness and which may, on the contrary, be given additional validity by failure.”

I realize I’m on tricky ground here since my argument could be misconstrued as justifying evil behaviour undertaken sincerely. My only response is to refer to one’s existential responsibility to act authentically, to act in good faith. In Existential Psychotherapy, Irvin Yalom writes: “freedom extends beyond being responsible for the world (that is, for imbuing the world with significance): one is also entirely responsible for one’s life, not only for one’s actions but for one’s failure to act.

The same idea is embodied in the famous dictum of Wang Yang-ming, the sixteenth-century Chinese scholar whose teachings had a profound influence on the development of the Japanese ideal of makoto:

To know and not to act is the same as not knowing at all.

In this sense, even if I am not responsible for the state’s decision to go to war, I am obliged to act with sincerity of purpose (authentically)—whether I choose to support the war or to oppose it—and to accept responsibility for both my actions and my failure to act.

Update. Occasionally, someone responds to one of my posts in a special way. In his post Faith and Honor, Dave Rogers addresses—persuasively and with great elegance—the issue that continued to trouble me: could my argument be used to justify “evil behavior undertaken sincerely”? Mr Rogers’ post completes my own and so they are best regarded as two parts of a single whole.

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Wednesday 20 November 2002

Civilians in the front line

Mike Sanders points to a Slate essay in which Christopher Hitchens argues that “civilians are in the front line as never before.”

Where does it come from? This absurd misconception that civilians have, in recent times, been only accidental casualties of war.

The Luftwaffe’s attacks on British cities during World War II (known as The Blitz) were directed primarily against civilians, resulting in just over 50,000 deaths. Partly in retaliation, mainly because of technological inadequacies, RAF Bomber Command, led by Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Harris, switched its focus to night attacks on civilian targets:

It was decided that precision bombing was beyond Bomber Command’s capabilities and when Harris arrived at High Wycombe he found there an eight-day-old directive which laid down a new policy: “The primary object of your operations should now be focused on the morale of the civilian population and in particular of the industrial workers.” In the absence of the ability to hit individual factories the whole town was to be attacked and its life brought to a halt. The official administrative buildings, the public utilities, the workers’ homes and, with luck, the factories would all be hit. The new policy became known as Area Bombing.

Martin Middlebrook, The Nuremburg Raid

The RAF attack on Hamburg in mid-1943 and the resulting firestorm killed an estimated 45,000 men, women, and children (according to German records: 13,000 men, 21,000 women and over 8,000 children). Estimates of those killed in the attack on Dresden, in February 1945, are less precise, varying from 50,000 to 250,000. A figure of around 135,000 is commonly accepted.

The commanders of the American Eighth Air Force, on the other hand, refused to commit their aircrews to area bombing: they felt serious moral reservations about attacking the civilian population of Germany and were confident that precision daylight raids by the heavily armed B-17 could accurately strike military targets. Their conviction was sorely tested in raids such as the second attack on Schweinfurt in which 20 per cent of the attacking force were lost (the accepted attrition rate of 5 per cent meant that only 277 out of 1000 men would survive a tour of 25 missions). The Eighth Air Force persisted and, escorted by the long range P-51 Mustang fighter, the B-17s proved the efficacy of daylight precision bombing.

The same tactics employed against Japanese military targets were, however, an unmitigated failure. Meteorological conditions over Japan—a combination of cloud cover and strong high altitude winds—made it almost impossible for the B-29s to bomb accurately. In early 1945, General Curtis Le May, commander of the XXI Bomber Command, decided to switch to area (fire) bombing at night.

In the first raid—on the night of March 9-10, 1945—napalm-based incendiaries killed an estimated 100,000 civilians. According to the most authoratitive source, Kenneth Werrell’s Blankets of Fire, during the course of the campaign B-29s destroyed 178 square miles (43 percent) of the built-up areas of sixty-six cities (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki). The United States Strategic Bombing Survey estimated that 330,000 people were killed, 476,000 injured, 2.5 million buildings destroyed, and 8.5 million made homeless. The overwhelming majority of the dead, wounded, and “dehoused” (Sir Arthur Harris’s memorable euphemism) were civilians.

Mother and child: victims of the Tokyo firebombing
Young mother and child, victims of the March 9-10 raid on Tokyo

So, which front line is it, exactly, that civilians are in as never before?

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Friday 24 January 2003

Little support for war on Iraq as troops depart

Although, according to the latest opinion polls, only 6% of Australians support sending troops to join an invasion of Iraq without United Nations approval, yesterday families and friends farewelled 350 members of the Australian Defence Force who have been ordered to join US and British forces outside Iraq. Many more are scheduled to follow.

An A.C. Nielsen poll commissioned for the publishers of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers and a Newspoll conducted for SBS World News yielded similar results: around 60% support Australian involvement as part of a UN approved force while 30% are opposed to war with Iraq with or without UN sanction. Interestingly an Ipsos-Reid poll for The Globe and Mail indicated that a similar proportion of Canadians (64%) “believe Canada should provide military assistance for any military action against Iraq only if the United Nations—and not just the U.S.—decides it is necessary.”

Although I don’t believe in poll-driven government, I hate the fact that our armed forces are being committed to a cause for which there is so little support. It’s gratifying that so many Australians see through the Bush administration’s empty rhetoric about the dangers posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, with 42% seeing North Korea as a greater threat to world peace (compared to 46% for Iraq). One wonders how Australians might have answered the poll question to which 36% of Canadians replied that they “regarded the Bush Administration as the greatest single threat to world peace, ahead of Iraq, North Korea or the al-Qaeda terrorist network.” Must one be blind or merely dull-witted not to see the differing US attitudes to Iraq and North Korea in terms of the presence or lack of oil?

Prime Minister John Howard’s promise that there “would be no commitment to war before parliament resumed” on February 4 must be weighed against the minisule chance of the troops being recalled now that they have been committed, given the Bush administration’s clear determination to attack Iraq regardless of any decisions made by the UN.

Opposition Leader Simon Crean—whom I’ve always regarded as a colorless Labor party apparatchik whose only skill lies in being all things to all voters—miraculously discovered some political courage and made an apparently well-received speech to the departing personnel in which he criticized the military commitment:

“I don’t support the deployment of our troops in these circumstances. I do support our troops and always will, and that distinction is fundamentally important,” Mr Crean told the troops on the HMAS Kanimbla.

“The men and women of our fighting forces in a democracy are expected unquestionably to follow the orders of the government of the day.

“You don’t have a choice and my argument is with the Government, not you.”

It came as a relief that Mr Crean implicitly mapped out the boundaries under which anti-war protests should be conducted. Writing in the Your Say section of the Sydney Morning Herald, Jason Briggs was more direct:

Whatever the course of public opinion takes, on the issue of ADF personnel being deployed to Iraq, or Australian involvement in a military action against Iraq. One thing needs to be kept in mind at all times and this certainly applies to the growing number, of anti war protestors. DO NOT SPIT ON, THROW PAINT AT, VERBALLY ABUSE, ASSAULT OR CONDUCT ANY ACTIVITY THAT HUMILATES, INTIMIDATES OR PERSECUTES RETURNED SERVICE MEN [and] WOMEN. Just as Anti-war protestors did during the Vietnam conflict.

I’ve already written about my ambivalence towards our involvement in the Vietnam war:

Out of curiosity I went to an anti-war rally but the protestors were contemptible compared to my comrades in the regiment and the professional soldiers who’d trained us. Despite my belief that the war was unjust and futile, I found it impossible to discard the loyalty I felt towards the Australians fighting against the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong, with whom I now also identified.

I hope as the anti-war protests build, that those opposed to the war realize—as those who protested against the Vietnam war did not—that in a democracy the armed forces are under civilian control and are obliged to follow the orders of the legally elected government. Many protestors would also do well to remember that this is the same ADF—with the same traditions and military doctrine—upon whom they bestowed a rapturous welcome upon the return of the troops from assisting in the liberation of East Timor and its move towards independence, a commitment that happened to meet with their approval.

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Thursday 30 January 2003

The sanctity of (American) life

Yesterday in Melbourne I was working in a building with high-tech pretensions: the Internet connection was down but George W. Bush’s State of the Union address was screening live on TV monitors in the lobby and elevators. On my way down to the coffee shop in mid-afternoon, watching this “well-meaning but ignorant, untravelled man with grandiose goals” on the tiny screen, I couldn’t help but wonder by what strange alchemy someone so unexceptional had become leader of the greatest military and industrial power in history. When we reached the ground floor, a young man muttered at me as he strode out of the elevator: “He better not bloody try it without UN approval.” An empty jibe, to be sure, since we both knew that UN approval is the least of the Bush cabal’s concerns.

Today, back in Sydney, I went first to the pool then to the movies in an effort to escape the 39°C (102°F) heat (my house isn’t air-conditioned). As the final credits began to roll at the end of The Quiet American, the woman sitting next to me turned and said: “This film should be compulsory viewing for everyone in the country, particularly that person in Canberra.” Had I seen her in the lobby of the multiplex before the movie, I would have assumed from her clothing, her hairstyle, and her demeanor that she had voted for “that person in Canberra” (Prime Minister John Howard) in the last three elections and for his party throughout her entire life. Yet though she may have been a wealthy, elderly, conservative woman she saw as clearly as any starry-eyed young radical the parallels between Grahame Greene’s tale of the beginnings of US involvement in Vietnam fifty years ago and the events about to unfold in Iraq—American arrogance and hubris being a constant in post-WWII history.

So this is what it’s come to: strangers in lifts and movie theaters express to me uninvited their disapproval of the coming war with Iraq. Not out of some bitter or envious anti-Americanism, as the defenders of American imperialism like to suggest, but because—like most Australians—these strangers disapprove of the new world order Geoff Kitney describes, “in which America chooses which regimes stay and which should go.”

“What an outrage,” I said to my friend P the other day, “that Howard can turn us into America’s lapdog once again, when only six percent of Australians approve of attacking Iraq without UN approval.”

“We’d be lucky to know even six percent of what’s really going on,” he replied.

Therein lies a difficulty: formulating a position with hardly any real information. Then what’s the alternative? To acquiesce? I have no interest in supporting or defending Saddam Hussein. He’s clearly a threat and we’d be well rid of him. Let’s do it, with UN approval. But at what cost without? A few months ago I quoted Robert Manne:

At the centre of [Bush’s pre-emptive strike] doctrine, a huge conceptual hole appears. Does the US, as the world hegemon, alone possess the sovereign right to act unilaterally against a supposed threat to its security by prosecuting a preventive war, or does an identical right exist for other states?

If the right does not exist for others, the Bush doctrine amounts to an almost formal claim to US world hegemony. If, on the other hand, all states possess the same right, the Bush doctrine opens the way to the return of the jungle, where the powerful have the capacity to impose their will.

What’s good enough for America will turn out to be good enough for China, India, Pakistan, Israel, Japan (when China poses a threat), Russia (as soon as it stabilizes its economy), the European Union (once it rearms).

Don’t tell me that the US will use its overwhelming power for the common good. The US has always acted to further its own interests, as powerful states invariably do. And as much as John Howard might imagine he’s guaranteeing our safety by signing us up (unwillingly) for America’s Iraq adventure, the Americans will sell us down the river for two pins if their national interest demands it.

So what’s to be done? Nothing. I’m not even sure that a campaign of massive civil disobedience would be enough to bring our soldiers home. But bad things will come of this and we’d be better off allowing the Americans to secure their oil without our assistance.

It would be marginally less unpalatable if America’s ruthless pursuit of its own economic interests wasn’t wrapped in a saccharine coating of moralistic cant:

America is a strong Nation, and honorable in the use of our strength. We exercise power without conquest, and sacrifice for the liberty of strangers.

Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America s gift to the world, it is God s gift to humanity.

We Americans have faith in ourselves but not in ourselves alone. We do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life, and all of history.

May He guide us now, and may God continue to bless the United States of America.

God give me fucking strength. “Placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life, and all of history” as Bush prepares “to shatter Iraq ‘physically, emotionally and psychologically’ by raining down on its people as many as 800 cruise missiles in two days.” Wasn’t irony supposed to have died on September 11?

And this a week after he declared January 20 to be National Sanctity of Human Life Day, which I imagined was some bizarre joke when I read the derisive references to it in Get Your War On:

“‘National Sanctity of Life Day?’ Does that have something to do with sanctions?”

“Don’t be sanctimonious! It applies to innocent fetuses in the sanctum sanctorum, not dirty, miserable children who already exist in this world of sin.”

“Maybe if Iraqi mothers fuckin’ stuffed their children back into their wombs we’d go a little easier on them.”

But it’s not a joke. It’s real, in a breathtakingly offensive way:

This Nation was founded upon the belief that every human being is endowed by our Creator with certain “unalienable rights.” Chief among them is the right to life itself. The Signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged their own lives, fortunes, and honor to guarantee inalienable rights for all of the new country’s citizens. These visionaries recognized that an essential human dignity attached to all persons by virtue of their very existence and not just to the strong, the independent, or the healthy. That value should apply to every American, including the elderly and the unprotected, the weak and the infirm, and even to the unwanted.

Every American, note. The rest of us can burn in hell.

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Thursday 06 February 2003

No easy way out

“Like most Australians,” writes Paul Sheehan in today’s Sydney Morning Herald, “I’m against the Bush Administration’s war, but that doesn’t mean that we in the majority can congratulate ourselves about our moral superiority.”

Sheehan’s opinion piece is worth reading in full, since it lays out with uncomfortable clarity the dilemma that any intelligent person faces when trying to formulate a position on how to deal with Saddam Hussein. I’ve already argued against Australia’s participation in a war against Iraq—but only against a war conducted without UN sanction—because I fear the consequences of allowing the United States to be the sole arbiter of what is or is not an acceptable government and because I agree with Robert Manne that legitimizing the preemptive strike casts us back to the law of the jungle.

Sheehan asks why Australia should support a US administration that:

  • Appears willing to use nuclear weapons as a first-strike option.
  • “Botched the endgame against al-Quaeda” in Afghanistan.
  • Makes no connection between its Iraq policy and its blank-cheque support for Israel.

But then comes the sting in the tail:

The moral virgins in this debate who pronounce themselves “against war”, and who rail against American arrogance, need to at least acknowledge the impact that inertia and appeasement have had on the continuing murders and torture in the Abu Ghraib prison, the genocide against the Kurds and the Madans, the invasions of Kuwait and Iran, the missile attacks on Israeli civilians, the use of chemical weapons, the degradation of the environment and the general malevolence of a kleptocracy run by Saddam and his Caligula-like son, Uday, and their vast apparatus of suppression.

Had this regime not been decisively and violently checked by US power 12 years ago, it would now control the vast oil resources of Kuwait as well as its own, would have used this economic power to build an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, would have sought nuclear weapons, and would probably be untouchable. All thanks to prudent, peace-loving people who are against military interventions and American imperialism.

It’s clear that the revulsion Australians feel towards Saddam Hussein is balanced by a deep distrust of both the Bush administration’s motives and those of our own government. The end result is an overwhelming insistence that our participation be sanctioned by the UN.

Sheehan suggests that, in offering Australian support for the attack on Iraq, with or without UN sanction, Prime Minister John Howard is paying an insurance premium against the time when Muslim Indonesia implodes on our doorstep. Then, the argument goes, our alliance with the US would be the only thing that could save us. (How George W. Bush can guarantee the actions of a future US government is not explained.)

If that is the case, and I suspect it probably is, then it’s impossible for the Prime Minister to admit his true motive without causing a massive diplomatic row with the Indonesian government. As Sheehan concludes: “There is no easy way out for the Prime Minister. Or for the rest of us.”

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Saturday 15 February 2003

Pyle and Bush

The US Ambassador to Australia, Tom Schieffer, has made a habit of ruffling Australian feathers by pointedly ignoring the accepted custom that diplomats do not comment on a host country’s internal politics. This week, in an interview published in the weekly newsmagazine, The Bulletin, he expressed his dissatisfaction with the Labor party’s policy that Australian troops not be committed to a war Iraq without UN approval—although he made no direct comment on Labor front-bencher Mark Latham’s characterization of George W. Bush as “the most incompetent and dangerous president in living memory.”

I suspect that much of what Mr Schieffer describes as anti-Americanism in Australia is simply anti-Bush sentiment. As Alan Ramsay wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald this morning:

It is Bush who appals many Australians. The man, not the country he leads.

This wee, strutting caricature of an American president, with his cowboy boots and cowboy language, his persistent appeals to God in defence of “freedom-loving people” - rhetoric the rest of us ridiculed when the Soviets and China forever spouted it during the worst of the Cold War in the ’50s and ’60s - is, without doubt, the most frightening US leader any of us have experienced. So, too, the two most influential figures in his administration: Vice-President Cheney and the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. Both are wealthy Republican retreads from the Nixon White House of almost 30 years ago. Both are the real powers in George jnr’s Washington 29 years after the disgraced Nixon was driven from office.

All three scare the pants off most of us.

Even Colin (pronounced colon) Powell, Bush’s Secretary of State, previously widely considered the only restraining influence in the Bush Administration, now eats from the same table. He has, as a former Australian minister of great wit describes him, become semi-colon.

Film director Phil Noyce struck a similar note when, in a Salon interview with Jean Tang, he compared George W. Bush to Alden Pyle, the CIA operative in Grahame Greene’s The Quiet American:

Alden Pyle is a bit of a dunderhead. He’s just a complete big bumbling idiot who’s really not aware of any of the implications of what he’s doing…

George Bush is the ultimate Alden Pyle! He’s hardly been out of the country, he’s steeped in good intentions, believes he has the answer, is very naive, ultimately not that bright, and extremely dangerous.

I first encountered Phil Noyce in the early 70’s at a screening at the Filmmaker’s Cooperative, above Bob Gould’s old bookshop in Goulburn Street. Every Sunday night we’d gather to watch 16mm movies and on this occasion Phil showed ten minutes of color footage of his father burning leaves in the back garden of his house in Wahroonga, an upper-class suburb on Sydney’s North Shore.

“I don’t have a soundtrack so I’ve organized a smelltrack,” Phil told us as he emptied dead grass, twigs, and leaves onto a sheet of corrugated iron he’d laid on the floor next to the projector. He took a box of matches from his shirt pocket, used two or three to set the garden refuse alight, and signalled the projectionist to roll the film. The smell of burning leaves—intensely nostalgic for many of us—filled the cramped space above the bookshop as Phil ran up and down the aisle grasping the corrugated iron in one hand and fanning the flames with the other.

A few years later I shot stills for a feature on which Phil was second or third assistant director, then for a couple of documentaries he directed. His infectious enthusiasm and unflappable nature made him a pleasure to work with. He went on to direct one of the truly great Australian features, Newsfront, before heading off to Hollywood. Although I never much cared for the action pictures he made—such as Patriot Games or Clear and Present Dangerhis adaptation of The Quiet American is close to perfect.

Anyone who has traveled in South-East Asia will immediately recognize the precision with which Noyce and his cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, have captured not just the mood and character of the cities and countryside but the emotional undertone of the relationships between Vietnamese and Caucasians (British, French, and American).

No doubt assisted by Doyle’s firsthand experience, Noyce gets the tone of the liaison between Fowler (Michael Caine) and his Vietnamese mistress Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen) exactly right—a kind of world-weary acceptance of an imperfect situation that the American Pyle (Brendan Fraser) finds incomprehensible.

Though I haven’t read Greene’s novel—it’s on my list—it’s a tribute to Noyce’s direction that I only realized a couple of days after I’d seen the film how crude the central metaphor actually is: innocent young girl (Vietnam) trapped in an exploitative relationship with a corrupt and cynical journalist (France) can only be rescued by a decent, honest medical operative (America). Except that the American turns out to be a CIA agent who is directly or indirectly responsible (depending on your viewpoint) for a terrorist attack on a Saigon city square that results in the death and maiming of dozens of innocent civilians.

It’s also clear how well qualified Phil Noyce was to make The Quiet American. He, as I did, missed out on a “winning ticket” in the National Service lottery that would have sent us to fight in Vietnam. And Noyce’s father “was in the Australian equivalent of the OSS” (the precursor to the CIA):

He was a spy. He was in the Zed force doing exactly the same thing, training operatives to go behind enemy lines. He didn’t go, he just trained them on an island off the east coast of Australia. This was in 1945. And he told me the story of one guy called Minh who said to him, “I don’t care about the Japanese, I’m just here to learn how to defeat the French.” And at the time, there was no such place as Vietnam, there was just Indochina, and [my dad] realized of course that he was training a Vietnamese operative.

Similarly, all the characters in The Quiet American—Fowler, Phuong, Pyle, Hinh (Fowler’s assistant)—are pragmatic, in their own ways, but Pyle is the most dangerous because his willingness to do whatever it takes (“to destroy the village in order to save it”) is buttressed by naivety, overweening certainty, and a lack of historical awareness. Not unlike George W. Bush.

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Sunday 16 February 2003

Against war?

Natsuko called this morning to ask if I’d reconsider my decision not to attend the anti-war march.

“You should come,” she said, “everybody should be against war. The more the merrier.”

“I’m not against war,” I replied. “I’m against unilateral military action, tyranny, and fundamentalism.”

“John Pilger will be speaking,” she added gratuitously.

I thought about telling Natsuko that Pilger’s reflexive anti-American stance is just a different kind of fundamentalism, no different—in essence—from Muslim, Christian, or Zionist fundamentalism. But instead I told her to be careful and to call me when she was safely home, so I’d know she hadn’t come to any harm or been arrested.

It’s not that I didn’t consider attending the anti-war rally in Sydney today. If it had been a No War on Iraq Without UN Sanction rally, I’d have been there in an instant; but that was not the rally that was planned and advertised nor the rally that was held. There was no space at the table for someone for whom being “against war” makes no more sense than to be “against salt water” or “against sexual attraction.”

I can understand someone’s being “against war except as a means of last resort” or “against a particular side in a specific war,” but to be against war per se is to deny that, under certain circumstances, there may be no alternative to war. I’ve written before about my objection to the “anti-war” argument in these terms:

The contradiction, as it appears to me, is that the surviving Jews in Buchenwald, Auschwitz, and the other death camps were not liberated by pacifists. Those few Jews left alive were set free by courageous men and women who had fought their way across Europe against determined German resistance—men and women who, whether they were motivated by moral outrage, a thirst for justice, the instinct for self-preservation, or a sense of loyalty to their comrades, took part in a sustained campaign of murderous and coercive violence that resulted in the defeat of the Nazis.

Were they wrong? Or mistaken? If so, what was the pacifist strategy for defeating Hitler, ending the occupation of Europe, and stopping the Holocaust? (And, by extension, for vanquishing the Japanese military forces and liberating the subjugated peoples of Asia.)

I’ve also stated in various posts my misgivings about the real motives of the US, British, and Australian governments in preparing an unsanctioned attack on Iraq. Today, after reading a long essay titled Real Reasons for the Upcoming War with Iraq (via a comment by Paul Hughes on Joi Ito’s post My position on warblogging), I’m even more skeptical about the Bush administration’s stated reasons for invading Iraq.

The essay argues that Saddam Hussein’s decision late 2000 to transact Iraq’s oil sales in Euros instead of dollars (and his subsequent conversion of Iraq’s $10 billion reserve fund at the UN to Euros) poses a substantial threat to the US economy—initially by establishing the Euro “as an alternative oil transaction currency” then subsequently by encouraging OPEC to follow suit.

<update>Stavros pointed out in a comment that the oil currency article, by W. Clark, originally appeared at, which also provides a link to a related article by Peter Dale Scott, Bush’s Deep Reasons For War on Iraq: Oil, Petrodollars, and the OPEC Euro Question.</update>

(Aside: anyone who believes that the French and German governments are motivated by altruism or a commitment to world peace must be drinking cocktails mixed from equal portions of naivety and idealism.)

So what’s my solution? To force the Americans and Europeans to thrash out a compromise that will neutralize the extremists in the Bush administration, discourage the legitimization of unilateral military action, and leave the “authority” of the UN intact. A UN-sanctioned campaign against Saddam Hussein offers the best chance of liberating the Iraqi people, constraining the US government’s Middle East ambitions, and establishing a balance of power between the US and Europe.

Tonight on the TV news I saw various anti-war figures speak out against any war on Iraq, stressing that it would result in the death and suffering of thousands of women, children, and soldiers. Yet not one of them had anything to say about the death and suffering that Saddam Hussein has inflicted on hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

Ten days ago, the Sydney Morning Herald’s Paul Sheehan quoted from a portrait of Iraq by Jon Lee Anderson in The New Yorker of November 25:

“Abu Ghraib is the biggest prison in the country [Iraq]. Until recently, it housed maybe 50,000 men, although to my knowledge there are no official figures on this… Over the years human rights organisations have reported that mass executions took place regularly… every Wednesday was execution day at the prison. An old-fashioned Indian hanging machine had been used for a while, but a problem arose with noise. There was a terrific banging sound every time the machine dropped and people living near the prison had been begun keeping track of the executions by counting the bangs,” the Iraqi exile said.

“The old gallows was replaced by a quiet modern device, but the locals still knew when executions were taking place because the condemned men ululated as they went to their deaths. In our culture, this is something that only women do, when they are happy. But the men in Abu Ghraib make the sound because they are so relieved that they are finally going to die.”

What, if you are “against war,” is the solution to this?

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Tuesday 18 February 2003


Burningbird wrote:

Tell me your justifications for war and display for me past examples where good triumphed over evil in a necessary war. For every act of rightous war you bring into the light, I’ll show you a ribbon of folly and greed, arrogance and stupidity stretching back into the darkness behind it.

Although it is difficult to locate exactly when in prewar Japan the “ribbon of folly and greed, arrogance and stupidity” that led to the Pacific War began, we could pick the Peace Preservation Law of 1925, given its resonances with what is happening all around us now.

Sponsored by Hiranuma Kiichirō and his followers in the Ministry of Justice, and enacted on 12 May 1925, the Peace Preservation Law was—according to the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan—the “central pillar of the system of ideological control established in the prewar period and served as the framework for the creation of special techniques for handling “thought criminals.” (shisōhan).

The main thrust of the law was presented in article 1, which read: “Anyone who has formed an association with the objective of altering the kokutai or the system of private property, and anyone who has joined such an association with full knowledge of its object, shall be liable to imprisonment with or without hard labor for a term not exceeding ten years.” By the use of the highly enigmatic and emotional term kokutai—the political system, regarded as unique to Japan, embodied in the imperial line and the institutions supporting it—the Hiranuma clique blended politics and ethics in a traditional manner, turning dissent into a moral as well as a legal issue and undermining the liberal interpretation of the Constitution of the Empire of Japan.

After the Manchurian Incident of 1931 (in which the Kwantung Army fabricated a Chinese attack on a Japanese railway post as a pretext for starting their conquest and pacification of Manchuria), “dissent was tolerated less and officials demanded greater conformity and harmony.” Those judged to be “thought criminals” were subjected to a process of conversion (tenkō), consisting of various forms of physical and psychological coercion.

By 1937, when the Sino-Japanese war commenced, the Japanese were living in a police state no less repressive than that of Nazi Germany. Although one must be careful not to forget that the Japanese militarists enjoyed popular support, particularly in the months following the Navy’s successful attack on Pearl Harbor and the Army’s stunning victories in South East Asia, it is equally true that any dissent was ruthlessly suppressed.

However, the issue for me is not the “ribbon of folly and greed, arrogance and stupidity” that led to this situation since I’ve already rejected the belief that “foolish or immoral choices explain the evils of the world—and that wiser or more moral and humane social policies are the solution.” Rather I accept Thomas Sowell’s view that the evils of the world derive from “the limited and unhappy choices available, given the inherent moral and intellectual limitations of human beings.” In other words, folly, greed, arrogance, and stupidity will inevitably arise wherever there are people present.

Therefore I cannot agree with William Godwin’s assertion—quoted by Sowell in The Vision of the Anointed—that “the way for a country to avoid war… is to behave with ‘inoffensiveness and neutrality’ towards other countries and to avoid the kind of ‘misunderstanding’ that leads to war.” I’m halfway through reading John Keegan’s A History of Warfare and, unfortunately, nothing I’ve encountered so far gives me cause to reject John Jay’s statement in The Federalist Papers that “nations in general will make war whenever they have a prospect of getting anything by it.”

Let me make it clear that I’m not in favor of war—and I agree that it is always preferable to try to minimize or eliminate the folly, greed, arrogance, and stupidity that lead to armed conflict—it’s just that I’m not against war under any and all circumstances. And I’m deeply ambivalent about the proposed war against Iraq for exactly the reasons Joseph Duemer articulated yesterday:

If I had any faith that this government was the least bit interested in the long-term welfare of ordinary Americans like me, I could be persuaded that military action was necessary to remove Saddam; unfortunately, perhaps, I cannot assent to be governed by this illegitimate cabal. This might seem to be splitting ethical hairs, picking ethical nits; but in fact it has everything to do with the current political situation: The budget that Bush just sent to Congress contains no line item for rebuilding Afghanistan. Not a farthing, not a pfennig, not a red cent.That’s commitment, that’s follow through, that’s support for the wretched of the earth. These guys really don’t give a flying fuck.

My objection to the coming war has less to do with Saddam than it does with the current resident of the White House & his handlers.

That I’m not implacably opposed to this war, or to war per se, is partly explained by a story told by novelist Charles McCarry in an essay called A Strip of Exposed Film (based on a talk given at the New York Public Library and published in Paths of Resistance: The Art and Craft of the Political Novel). I read McCarry’s essay many years ago, before I became interested in the firebombing of Tokyo. Since then I’ve read dozens of books in English about the B-29 campaign against Japan from every possible perspective: the bombing victims, the B-29 aircrew, the scientists who designed the incendiary bombs… now my focus is on improving my Japanese reading skills to the point where I can access the original Japanese sources. Yet, out of all my reading, McCarry’s story offers a singular and extraordinary perspective.

Charles McCarry had been climbing in the Japan Alps when he and his wife were invited to visit the head man of a village called Nodaira.

His name was Toyomi Yamagishi. The same twenty families had been living in this very remote village since the twelfth century; the first road had been built only thirty years earlier. Before that everything that went into the village and came out of the village went in or came out on the back of a human being.

The visit took place at ten in the morning, “the usual Japanese hour for such affairs. They all sat around the kotatsu, a table with a blanket draped over it and a charcoal brazier underneath, “so that your lower body was warm enough and you warmed your upper body by drinking whiskey and sake at ten in the morning.” After they had eaten and been served green tea, Yamagishi began to speak.

He spoke in a recitative style, somewhat like the narration of a Noh play or a Bunraku puppet theater performance, except that he was speaking modern Japanese so that we could understand what he was saying.

He said he had invited us to his house because he had never met an American and had wanted to ever since World War II. We chatted a little about the history of the village and about the life that he and the other villagers had led before the war. He said it had been a life of ceaseless toil. As a child he had only rarely seen the faces of his parents because they worked every day from dark to dark, leaving the hut before he woke and returning after he was asleep. He had had no children of his own because he wanted to avoid this sadness in his own life. I remarked that I had grown up on a farm and knew how hard that life could be. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but you do not know. Human beings are not beasts of burden in America.”

B-29 over Osaka, 01 June 45Yamagishi then told us about his life during the war. He had been drafted in 1944, at the age of forty, and sent to Osaka to guard the emperor’s forest. Then the Americans took Saipan and the B-29s came. “The Americans burned the forest with incendiary bombs, so it was not necessary to guard it any longer,” he said. “I became a firefighter. The Americans would drop incendiary bombs to set the city on fire, and when we went to fight the fires they would wait until we were very busy and then they would come over with other B-29s and drop antipersonnel bombs and kill the firemen. I thought, ‘The Americans are very clever.’ Then, after the whole city had been destroyed, a single B-29 flew over Osaka and dropped not bombs but hundreds of little parachutes. When these parachutes landed we saw that a gift was tied to each—a mirror, a harmonica, a fountain pen. The Japanese people had lost nearly everything in the bombing and they were very glad to have these gifts from the Americans. They ran to get them, and when they touched them they exploded in their hands, blowing off fingers and blinding people. I thought, ‘The Americans are not only clever; they are ruthless. We have lost the war.’”

Bombs falling on OsakaYamagishi said, “Your ships came and shelled us. The bombers kept on also, every day. I was assigned to train people to fight the Americans when they invaded. We showed women and children how to make spears from bamboo. Every Japanese was prepared to die defending the homeland. Then the atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The emperor’s voice came over loudspeakers in the streets. He told us we must surrender. No one had ever heard his voice before, and to us it was the voice of God. But our commanding officer said, ‘No! We must kill the Americans! He is no true emperor if he tells the Japanese to surrender.’ Nevertheless we obeyed the emperor, and I came back to this village. All the younger sons of every family—all twenty families—had been killed in the war. Only old men and women were left to do the work. I thought we would starve to death. But as you see, we did not.

“Now,” the old Japanese said, “I will tell you why I invited you here. It is because I have something to say to you, and to all Americans.” He was out of breath and his face was full of color from the whiskey he had drunk, and I thought, “Well, here it comes.”

Yamagishi said, “Thank you. Thank you for defeating Japan. If you Americans had not done so, this village would be as it always was. The militarists would never have let us have democracy. But the Americans built the road; my nephews and nieces have cars and television sets, and they see their children every day. And because they have eaten American things like milk and vegetables and fruit, instead of the millet and pickles we had to eat, they are tall and beautiful like Americans instead of short and homely like me and my wife.” He bowed and said, “Thank you.” I realized, to my surprise, and in spite of everything I believed about the morality of bombing civilians, that the U.S. Air Force had won Yamagishi’s heart and mind by pitilessly destroying Osaka, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In one of my novels a political idealist asks Paul Christopher what he believes in. Christopher replies, “I believe in consequences.” In the novel, as in politics and in life itself, you can’t know what the consequences of any act will be until you come to the end.

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Thursday 20 February 2003

Ladies, lock & load

Disgusted that the Peloponnesian War has dragged on for years with no end in sight, Lysistrata convinced the women of Athens to go on a sex strike to force their husbands to make peace with Sparta. Echoing the theme of Aristophane’s play, Tara Sue Grubb wrote:

Peace on earth is possible. Ladies, We must stop raising assholes, or at least stop having sex with them.

A sufficiently provocative soundbite to warrant a link in Scripting News—though, given that Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata in 411 BC, not a startlingly original idea. The core of Tara Sue Grubb’s post is devoted to a conviction that probably predates the Peloponnesian War and which remains one of the most strongly held and deeply cherished beliefs of the women’s movement: that a world dominated by women would be more peaceful than the world we live in—dominated as it is by men.

My friend Ross and I have a lot in common. We both come from military families—his cousin and uncle serve and my brothers are soldiers. We were both raised by our father. And we share many ideas in business and politics. But there is plenty of room to disagree. Today we argued about war. I spoke with his wife and said, “If we replaced every man in power with a woman, there would be less war.” I don’t care for any speculation on the matter. We’ve never experienced mass matriarchy on this planet. There is no room for discussion—only proof. We will make peace in this world only after peace has been brought to our home. There are too many females pushing the testosterone bandwagon. I read an article today by a “chick” who thinks war is the “grown-up” thing to do. She went so far as too chide the protestors as though they are just simple minded youngsters, left-overs from the sixities who are just not “grown up” enough to make a choice for peace, but those who are grown up should know to support the war. Well, sister, even morons grow up.

Ross says I have this dreamy idea of peace on earth. “It’s not going to happen Tara!” I don’t believe him. I know how to turn the cheek and swing a punch. As long as this world is dominated by men and the women who want to have what they have, we will remain in a state of advanced destruction and decay while an entire portion of the human species denies its own duty.

Tara Sue Grubb’s assertion that there would be fewer wars under a matriarchal system is borne out by John Keegan’s argument in A History of Warfare:

Half of human nature—the female half—is in any case highly ambivalent about warmaking. Women may be both the cause or pretext of warmaking—wife-stealing is a principal source of conflict in primitive societies—and can be the instigators of violence in an extreme form: Lady Macbeth is a type who strikes a universal chord of recognition; they can also be remarkably hard-hearted mothers of warriors, some apparently preferring the pain of bereavement to the shame of accepting the homeward return of a coward. Women can, moreover, make positively messianic war leaders, evoking through the interaction of the complex chemistry of femininity with masculine responses a degree of loyalty and self-sacrifice from their male followers which a man might well fail to call forth. Warfare is, nevertheless, the one human activity from which women, with the most insignificant exceptions, have always and everywhere stood apart. Women look to men to protect them from danger, and bitterly reproach them when they fail as defenders. Women have followed the drum, nursed the wounded, tended the fields and herded the flocks when the man of the family has followed his leader, have even dug the trenches for men to defend and laboured in the workshops to send them their weapons. Women, however, do not fight. They rarely fight among themselves and they never, in any military sense, fight men. If warfare is as old as history and as universal as mankind, we must now enter the supremely important limitation that it is an entirely masculine activity.

And yet, other ideas that Keegan expresses equally forcefully, suggest that advances in weapons technology may be reducing women’s aversion to taking part in war.

It’s important to understand that Keegan’s book is a cultural history of war, based on his belief that “war is always an expression of culture, often a determinant of cultural forms, in some societies the culture itself.” Accordingly, he relies on psychology, metallurgy, genetics, logistics, archeology, politics and many other disciplines to illuminate his subject: the rise and fall of civilizations in terms of the weapons, strategy, and tactics used by warriors—from prehistory to the present day.

Keegan’s discussion of how man the hunter was transformed into man the warrior hinges on two crucial weapons: the bow and the horse. Describing primitive man’s relationship with the animal world, he stresses that “man the hunter was brave and skilful”, quoting the prehistorians Breuil and Lautier to suggest that there was

[no] great abyss separating [him] from the animal. The bonds between them were not yet broken, and man still felt near the beasts that lived around him, that killed and fed like him … From them he still retained all the faculties that civilisation has blunted—rapid action and highly trained senses of sight, hearing and smell, physical toughness in an extreme degree, a detailed, precise knowledge of the qualities and habits of game, and great skill in using with the greatest effect the rudimentary weapons available.

Keegan then drily adds that

these, of course, are the qualities of the warrior across the ages, which modern military training-schools of Special Forces seek to re-implant in their pupils at the cost of much time and money.

Man’s relationship with other animals changed with the introduction of the bow, which he characterizes as “the first machine”

…since it employed moving parts and translated muscular into mechanical energy. How the men of the New Stone Age hit upon it we cannot guess, though it spread very rapidly once invented; why they did so has most probably to do with the progressive retreat of the last ice-sheets. The warming of the temperate zones completely changed the movement and migration patterns of the hunters’ prey, abolishing the old pelagic areas where game was predictably found, and, by liberating animals to roam and feed further and more widely, forced the hunter and the hunting-party to find a means of bringing down a more fleeting target over longer ranges.

The simple bow, as the original is called, is a piece of homogeneous wood, typically a length of sapling, and it lacks the opposed properties of elasticity and compression that gave the later composite and long bows, made of both sapwood and heartwood, their greater carrying and penetrative power. Even in its simple form, however, the bow transformed the relationship of man with the animal world. He no longer had to close to arm’s length to dispatch his prey, pitting at the last moment flesh against flesh, life against life. Henceforth he could kill at a distance. In that departure ethologists like Lorenz and Ardrey perceive the opening of a new moral dimension in man’s relations with the rest of creation but also with his own kind. Was man the archer also man the first warrior?

Later in the book, Keegan extends this idea in his discussion of the impact of the horse—first employed in war by the nomadic people who inhabited the steppe—and the composite bow, a far more sophisticated weapon than either the simple bow used by prehistoric hunters or the long bow employed by European archers. The composite bow shot a lighter arrow than the long bow “but could still carry to 300 yards with great accuracy… and penetrate armor at a hundred yards.”

A mounted warrior, equipped with the composite bow, transformed the practice of warfare, which had been up until then fought mainly at close quarters by soldiers equipped with swords, shields, and other relatively primitive weapons.

The horse-riding peoples, like the charioteers before them, brought to warmaking the electric concept of campaigning over long distances and, when campaigning resolved itself into battle, of manoeuvering on the battlefield at speed—at least five times the speed of men on foot. As protectors of their flocks and herds against predators, they also preserved the spirit of the hunter, lost to agriculturalists except of the lordly class; in their management of animals they showed a matter-of-factness—in mustering, droving, culling, slaughter for food—that taught direct lessons about how masses of people on foot, even inferior cavalrymen, could be harried, outflanked, cornered and eventually killed without risk. These were practices that primitive hunters, with their empathetic relationship with their quarry and mystic respect for the stricken prey, would have found intrinsically alien. To the horse peoples, equipped with their principal weapon, the composite bow, itself a product of the animal tissues which supported their way of life, killing at a distance—of emotional detachment as well as physical space—was second nature.

I have no idea what Tara Sue Grubb might think of women in the military—whether she sees female soldiers as part of that group of women she criticizes for wanting “to have what [men] have.” Yet, given that one of the key goals of feminism has been to dismantle the political and cultural barriers to women’s participation in every field of human activity, it’s inevitable that women—or, at least, some women—would wish to participate in John Keegan’s “entirely masculine activity”: combat.

When we consider the major psychological transformations precipitated by weapons and tactics that allowed man to kill at a distance in an emotionally detached manner, it is hardly coincidental that women are integrated into combat units in the US Navy and Air Force—where they would not be expected to engage directly with an enemy—but are excluded from combat in the US Army where the chance of face-to-face contact is significantly higher.

Thus, in 1998, during Operation Desert Storm, Navy Lt. Kendra Williams became the first female fighter pilot to deliver a payload of missiles and laser-guided bombs while flying an F/A-18 mission over Iraq while First Lt. Cheryl Lamoureux was the first woman to fly a combat mission for the US Air Force when she was a crew member on a B-52 that fired Cruise missiles at Iraqi targets.

US Army units, on the other hand, are classified as either “P-2” (open to women) or “P-1” (closed to women). In May last year, the Pentagon removed eight female soldiers from ground reconnaissance units that are part of the Army’s fast-deploying combat brigades by reclassifying those units as P-1. The ruling was supposedly made to comply with a 1994 Defense Department policy that prohibits women from serving in units that perform direct ground combat roles but, as the Washington Post story makes clear, this was a political/cultural decision made by the Bush administration since Clinton political employees “did not view the newly created squadrons as direct combat units when the brigades were created in 1999 and developed in 2000.”

However, now that the barrier to women participating in air force and navy combat units has been removed, it seems only a matter of time—as in the period required for a further cultural shift to occur, or for the government to change, or both—before American women will be deployed in US Army combat units. Though I wonder whether Tara Sue Grubb would agree that their skills might eventually be useful in enforcing matriarchal rule.

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Tuesday 25 February 2003

A man set under authority

Since I sense I’ve been testing AKMA’s patience with my recent posts on the politics and ethics of warfare, I read with interest his Friday Sermon and its afterthought, Luther, [Just] War, and Preaching. In the latter AKMA wrote:

First, war is never right. There is a prevailing school of Christian ethical reflection—one from which I dissent—that teaches that disciples of Jesus may participate in warfare in defense of a just cause, on behalf of innocents, when every other means of bringing about the desired end has failed; such a situation makes participation in a war “just,” though it does not make the war itself a positive option. (My own Anglican tradition affirms in its Articles of Religion that “It is lawful for Christian men at the commandment of the Magistrate to wear weapons and serve in the wars,” though the Latin version of that article stipulates “et iusta bella administrare.”)

I accept, and I can only trust that AKMA does too, that—given the disparity between our respective positions—I’m not sure we’ll be able to find agreement—although I can feel myself inching my way slowly in the direction of AKMA’s position (I am particularly drawn to his belief that one’s truest identity is found in “respecting a primary allegiance to statelessness”).

But, at the risk of sounding like a cracked record, I’ll quote from John Keegan’s A History of Warfare once again, since Keegan frames his argument in similar terms to AKMA’s, although obviously he reaches a very different conclusion. In his opening chapter, titled War in Human History, Keegan writes:

The bounds of civilised warfare are defined by two antithetical human types, the pacifist and the ‘lawful bearer of arms’. The lawful bearer of arms has always been respected, if only because he has the means to make himself so; the pacifist has come to be valued in the two thousand years of the Christian era. Their mutuality is caught in the dialogue between the founder of Christianity and the professional Roman soldier who had asked for his healing word to cure a servant. ‘I also am a man set under authority,’ the centurion explained. Christ exclaimed at the centurion’s belief in the power of virtue, which the soldier saw as the complement to the force of law which he personified. May we guess that Christ was conceding the moral position of the lawful bearer of arms, who must surrender his life at the demand of authority, and therefore bears comparison with the pacifist who will surrender his life rather than violate the authority of his own creed? It is a complicated thought, but not one which Western culture finds difficult to accommodate. Within it the professional soldier and the committed pacifist find room to co-exist—sometimes cheek-by-jowl: in 3 Commando, one of Britain’s toughest Second World War units, the stretcher-bearers were all pacifists but were held by the commanding officer in the highest regard for their bravery and readiness for self-sacrifice. Western culture would, indeed, not be what it is unless it could respect both the lawful bearer of arms and the person who holds the bearing of arms intrinsically unlawful. Our culture looks for compromises and the compromise at which it has arrived over the issue of public violence is to deprecate its manifestation but to legitimise its use. Pacifism has been elevated as an ideal; the lawful bearing of arms—under a strict code of military justice and within a corpus of humanitarian law—has been accepted as a practical necessity.

The dialogue to which Keegan refers, between the founder of Christianity and the professional Roman soldier, is described in Luke 7: 1-10.

1 Now when he had ended all his sayings in the audience of the people, he entered into Capernaum.
2 And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear unto him, was sick, and ready to die.
3 And when he heard of Jesus, he sent unto him the elders of the Jews, beseeching him that he would come and heal his servant.
4 And when they came to Jesus, they besought him instantly, saying, That he was worthy for whom he should do this:
5 For he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue.
6 Then Jesus went with them. And when he was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying unto him, Lord, trouble not thyself: for I am not worthy that thou shouldest enter under my roof:
7 Wherefore neither thought I myself worthy to come unto thee: but say in a word, and my servant shall be healed.
8 For I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it.
9 When Jesus heard these things, he marvelled at him, and turned him about, and said unto the people that followed him, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.
10 And they that were sent, returning to the house, found the servant whole that had been sick.

AKMA absolutely rejects Keegan’s argument that the sacrifices made by soldier and pacifist are comparable:

while soldiers may be humble, altruistic, and noble, theirs is emphatically not the greatest sacrifice one can make. There’s a tremendous difference between risking one’s life in warfare, armed with automatic weapons, missiles, grenades, bombs, and so on (on one hand) and risking one’s life in service to others unarmed, from the conviction that helping those in need is one’s fundamental obligation (on the other hand).

In one sense, it would seem that the CO of 3 Commando agreed with AKMA’s conviction—and who would be better qualified to judge than a man who had under his command representatives of both Keegan’s “antithetical human types, the pacifist and the ‘lawful bearer of arms’”?

Though it won’t come as any surprise that I believe the sacrifices made by soldier and pacifist are comparable, my instinctive response is to have a greater degree of respect for the pacifist stretcher bearer than for the pacifist anti-war protester, since the latter’s moral position is so frequently held at no personal cost—and while sheltering under the protection afforded by professional soldiers.

My strongest interest lies, however, in how AKMA—or anyone with Christian convictions—would interpret the exchange between Christ and the Roman centurion.

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Monday 17 March 2003

Boo Hoo

In late July 1943, RAF Bomber Command mounted four raids against the civilian population of Hamburg that resulted in the deaths of approximately 45,000 women, children, and (mainly elderly) men. Martin Middlebrook, in The Battle of Hamburg: The Firestorm Raid, describes the lighthearted mood of the city as its citizens enjoyed themselves on the Saturday evening of July 24, unaware that the first round of devastation would be unleashed on them within a few hours:

The drinking halls were mainly full, although there were more female patrons than men. Beer and schnapps were in short supply but wine was plentiful, although not really thirst-quenching on this hot evening. The restaurant beneath the Rathaus, the Ratskeller, was a favorite rendezvous. ‘It was a good place for us middle-class girls. The food was good and we could order a bottle of wine and sit round a table, talking. Our reputation was safe there.’ All dancing and private parties were forbidden by direct order of Hitler; the civilians at home were not to enjoy such pleasures while the men at the front were having such a hard time. But a few dances and parties did take place just the same. Suites at the best hotels—the Atlantic, the Esplanade and the Reichshof—could be hired by private parties of the privileged class and discreet dances were taking place there. There could even be parties in homes—perhaps to celebrate an engagement or a soldier’s return for leave—provided one’s neighbor’s could be trusted not to report the celebration. In some of these parties, the forbidden English and American dance records so loved by the bright young things of Hamburg could be brought out and played. One such girl remembers her favorite: ‘Boo Hoo, You’ve Got Me Crying for You.’

My mother turned eighty last week and, rather than having an elaborate party, she chose to spend a few days in one of Sydney’s best hotels: inviting her friends for meals, to play bridge, visit the nearby museums, or see a movie. On the night of her birthday, while we we were dining at the hotel, I asked whether she remembered Boo Hoo.

“Oh, yes!” she told us. “I loved that song. It starts ‘Oh you meanie minie mo…’ But I can’t remember who used to play it.”

Google turned up the lyrics to Boo Hoo, proving that, sixty years later, my mother’s memory remains excellent:

Oh you meanie minie mo,
When you let me go
You let me in the middle of next week
When you said you’d let me go
Did I holler “No”
Now the tears are rolling down my cheek

Boohoo, you’ve got me crying for you
And as I sit here and sigh
Says I, “I can’t believe it’s true”
Boohoo, I’ll tell my mama on you,
The little game that you played
Has made her baby oh so blue
You left me in the lurch
You left me waiting at the church;
Boohoo that’s why I’m crying for you
Some day you’ll feel like I do
And you’ll be boohoo hoo in too.

The song is credited to Mal Hallett (also spelled “Hallet”). The Edison Project describes him thus:

Mal HalletMal Hallet, who at six and a half feet tall, waxed moustache, and wavy hair, was an impressive band leader; a graduate from the Boston Conservatory of Music. During WWI, he toured France as a member of the Al Moore Orch. He began his career as a bandleader recording for Edison in 1929 shortly after Edison began producing lateral-cut discs. In the 1930’s, his orchestra toured all over the New England states, usually in one-nighters. He was pioneering a “swing band” before swing bands had been invented, and included many accomplished musicians who would later achieve fame as great sidemen. Among these are: Gene Krupa, Toots Mondello, Jack Teagarden, and Frankie Carle. Mal Hallet died in 1952 in Boston, MA.

CD: Mal Hallett and His Orchestra (1926-41)A CD, titled Mal Hallett and His Orchestra (1926-1941), contains digitally restored versions of 25 of his songs, including Wang Wang Blues, Too Marvelous for Words, Where The Lazy River Goes By, and She’s a Cornfed Indiana Girl, though not—unfortunately—Boo Hoo.

When I first read Martin Middlebrook’s book, I connected Boo Hoo with Busby Berkeley movies such as Footlight Parade, 42nd Street, and Gold Diggers of 1933. Although Mal Hallett wasn’t actually associated with those films, this reminiscence by Elizabeth M. Horton—quoted by John M. Holman in a story about the Dance Carnival at Hampton Beach in New Hampshire—suggests that Hallett’s music offered the same kind of innocent sophistication as Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell singing Guy Lombardo’s By a Waterfall (“By a waterfall, I’m calling you-oo-oo-oo…”):

“I remember that dance hall as a place of pure glamor! We girls of towns 10 or 15 miles away seemed to make it every night during the summer. In my crowd, someone had a car. The dance floor was so beautiful, the fellows (we called the best and most attractive ones ‘cageys’), so handsome in their wide bottom gray flannels-plus fours (or even plus eights) worn with colored argyle type golf hose and such-like apparel. (No ragged jeans in those days!) The girls wore short dresses, short hair but curly, and rolled silk stockings (not yet nylon) and fancy garters to keep them up. When the nights were hot, the management opened the windows on the ocean side and delicious breezes wafted over the dance floor. Murphy’s Orchestra was very good always, but the greatest attraction was Mal Hallet on a Saturday night. We all thrilled to the music of Mal Hallet and when he went into his feature, the band would demonstrate such pieces as ‘Horses, Horses, Horses’ accompanied by the members standing up and riding hobby horses (which now seems more corny than it was). Also, they played and acted out ‘Collegiate, Collegiate, Yes, We Are Collegiate ….’. This called for a freshman cap and a crazy outfit. Others, too, but I forget. One piece I remember particularly, was called ‘After The Storm’. Then the music would roar, the lights would go out and all was dark until the make-believe storm was upon us and the ‘lightning’ would flash while the lights would go on and off and the roar of the music was really something!quot;

It’s impossible to ignore the poignant connections between the two young women: the American girl on a warm summer night thrilling to the fake thunder and lightning and the “roar” of the orchestra in a dance hall that would be destroyed by fire in 1929; and the German girl who would hear the roar of the bombers, see the incendiaries raining from the sky, and whose favorite song was Mal Hallett’s Boo Hoo, You’ve Got Me Crying for You.

Lancaster bomber over Hamburg

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Thursday 20 March 2003


I’ve written enough about Iraq. There’s nothing more to add, apart from the hope that this regrettable war can be brought to a swift conclusion, with the minimum casualties on both sides. What happens after that is anybody’s guess but one thing is certain: it won’t even vaguely resemble the outcome planned by Bush & Co.

My sympathies lie primarily with the soldiers who have been placed in this invidious situation: having to fight a war over which the citizens of their countries are deeply divided. Nothing I have read expresses my own thoughts and feelings as well as Dave Rogers’ essay, Responsibility:

So when the shooting starts and the terrible things happen, the burden is on us to keep faith with them, not to judge them, even if we couch our judgment in words like “grieve.” Better one should grieve for oneself than presume to grieve for the moral failure of a soldier doing his or her duty, holding up their end of the bargain while we shirked ours. They will not fail in their military objective. Some few of them may fail in their duty as a soldier and as a human being, and commit acts not in accordance with the laws of war. Even then, the burden is on us to keep faith with them, because we placed them in those circumstances, through our own inaction and indifference. We keep faith with them by holding our tongues, and we forgive them, and we ask them to forgive us. We let them down first. Our institutions will hold them accountable. It’s hard to say if anyone will hold us accountable.

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Monday 31 March 2003

“…always already writing about war”

Like a (relatively) few bloggers, I’ve been rendered nearly wordless by the war. When the coalition forces invaded eleven days ago, I decided I’d already written enough about Iraq, wishing only that the war be brought “to a swift conclusion, with the minimum casualties on both sides.” So I wrote about introversion/extroversion and telepathic communication and, oddly, I started photographing compulsively. But, essentially, I felt as though silence was preferable to opinionating.

I spent the first four days of last week in Melbourne, working. Friday I slept a lot. On Saturday, I saw Roman Polanski’s The Pianist in the morning and did my monthly accounts in the afternoon. Instead of writing all day Sunday, as I’d planned, I did a truly stupid thing: morbidly curious about what was likely to happen once the coalition forces entered Baghdad, I went to the local bookstore, bought a copy of Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down, and spent much of the day reading. It wasn’t until Sunday evening that, catching up on some of my favorite blogs, I came across a wonderful entry of Steve Himmer’s that gently nudged me back on course:

Like I said, I’d like to write about all that, but I’m having a hard time finding the words. As you may have noticed, I’ve been a lot more comfortable relying on the words of other people this week, words that have already been written or spoken in other, less immediate contexts and now, removed from their origins by the hindsight of interpretation, can by adjusted and maneuvered to say some of the things I’ve been struggling so hard to say for myself.

It’s a balancing act of sorts: Do I write about the war? Do I write about myself? Which is a better testament to living in these times? And all the while the answer is pretty obvious, really: no matter what any of us writes in these times, we are always already writing about war. I heard the point made last night that the novels of Jane Austen are very much of their time, full of markers of the immediacy of politics and warfare in the way that good men are literally hard to find, wiped out in the Napoleonic Wars, and that without resorting to the crutches of popculture markers and disposable references Austen presented a realistic image of the lived experience of her political moment. She, too, was always already writing about war.

Which gives me, I suppose, the freedom to engage whatever topics I want to, but unfortunately doesn’t encourage those topics to present themselves—I’m left only with the half-convinced sense that it’s okay to stop thinking about war for a minute, but no closer to actually being able to do so.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the war, either, though I tried to stop writing about it. And, since the war is the only topic that presents itself, I’m left with the choice of the war or catatonia (as in immobility and stupor). I’ve been planning for a couple of months now to alter the focus of my weblog. The shift is already well underway within me, though probably not so apparent from the outside. So, I’ll write about this war—and other wars—since, after all, I started blogging out of a failed desire to write about the war against Japan. Yet, as Steve Himmer taught me, “no matter what any of us writes in these times, we are always already writing about war.”

“What happens after [the war is brought to its ‘swift conclusion’],” I wrote in my earlier entry, “is anybody’s guess but one thing is certain: it won’t even vaguely resemble the outcome planned by Bush & Co.” I was thinking not so much about the military campaign, but rather of its aftermath. My ideas weren’t fully formulated but I knew one thing at least: the Bush administration’s goal of establishing a “model democracy” in Iraq—à la post-war Japan—was laughably unrealistic.

Last night on the late news, I saw an interview with Professor Des Ball, Australia’s leading defence and intelligence analyst. Regardless of the successful military outcome, he said, which would result in the capture or death of Saddam Hussein, the United States and its allies had likely already lost the political war in Iraq.

In this story by Sharon Mathieson, he argues that “instead of putting an end to terrorism, coalition forces will have effectively strengthened al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks by the end of the war,” thus diminishing the security of the US, Australia, and other allies.

Professor Ball made a number of other points which suggest that, although Saddam and his regime will go, the coalition’s other war aims are in tatters:

  • It was unlikely that coalition forces would find any substantial quantities of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq of the type that might persuade world public opinion that their removal was worth the price.
  • The use of chemical weapons to defend Baghdad will be seen around the world as a legitimate means of defence against the onslaught of coalition bombing and missile attacks.
  • Coalition forces would fail to produce persuasive evidence of links between the Iraqi regime and the al-Qaeda terrorist network, which will be strengthened in Iraq and around the world.

He summarized his argument in these terms:

“The coalition faces defeat in the sense that it’s likely to emerge from this war with its global interests more threatened, its strategic standing in the world more challenged and its security, the security of the United States and its allies, ultimately diminished.

“It would take a brave person to argue that the security of the world is going to end up being enhanced by this war.”

The success or failure of the military campaign is now largely irrelevant. A coalition “victory” is merely the end of the beginning. After that, it will take perhaps a half a million troops to occupy Iraq and defend its fledgling “democracy” against a new intifada that will make the last twenty years in Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel look mild by comparison. A coalition defeat—as in a negotiated withdrawal that leaves Saddam or his minions intact—will, as Dave Rogers suggests, “only guarantee far more death and destruction in the years to come.”

Dave adds: “I just hope we’re up to this challenge. With the right leadership, I’m sure we could be. I’m not at all confident we have the right leadership.”

We don’t have the right leadership. To put it bluntly, we’re fucked.

Unless the anti-war/peace movement can come up with something more sophisticated and useful than red-daubed faces, drumming, banal chants, puerile street theater, trite placards, histrionics, self-indulgent moralizing, and wishful thinking.

[Mark Pilgrim has gone to some considerable effort in assembling a comprehensive list of peaceblogging links. I have some reading to do.]

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Tuesday 01 April 2003

You need a shovel not a slogan to dig yourself out of a hole

“Iraq has Highway 28. South Vietnam had Route 19, which ran from the coast up into the Central Highlands,” wrote Joseph L. Galloway last week. “It was garrisoned from beginning to end by American and Korean soldiers guarding the bridges and the high mountain passes.”

Off to the right of Route 19, on a barren hill, stood a monument and a small, empty cemetery full of markers bearing the names and ranks of an entire regiment of France’s finest, Groupe Mobile 100, proud veterans of the war in Korea.

As their column drove across the Man Yang Pass between An Khe and Pleiku in 1954, they were ambushed by Viet Minh guerrillas. They all died on that lonely highway, and with them died the last hope of French victory in Indochina.

Galloway wrote the book We Were Soldiers Once… And Young, with Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore, who commanded the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry during the battle of Ia Drang in November, 1965. In the book, Moore describes a visit to the French cemetery:

Shortly after we arrived in Vietnam, Sergeant Major Plumley and I took a jeep and a shotgun guard and drove ten miles west of An Khe on Route 19, into no-man’s-land, to the PK 15 marker post. There, the Viet Minh had destroyed most of the French Group Mobile 100 in a deadly ambush eleven years earlier. We walked the battleground, where a bullet-pocked six-foot-high stone obelisk declares in French and Vietnamese: “Here on June 24, 1954, soldiers of France and Vietnam died for their countries.” In my hand was Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy, which describes the battle. Plumley and I walked the battleground for two hours. Bone fragments, parts of weapons and vehicles, web gear and shell fragments and casings still littered the ground. From that visit I took away one lesson: Death is the price you pay for underestimating this tenacious enemy.

In the movie version, We Were Soldiers, Lt. Col. Moore—played by Mel Gibson—is obsessed by the French defeat, poring over books about the engagement and devising tactics to protect his men from a similar fate. The film opens with a flashback to the massacre.

At the end of the firefight, a Viet Minh soldier stands over a wounded Frenchman and asks his commander: “Do we take prisoners?”

“No,” replies the officer. “Kill all they send… and they will stop coming.”

It is one of the most fondly cherished illusions of the anti-Vietnam protest movement that they played a major role in bringing the war to an end. Such a claim demeans the courage and tenacity of the Vietnamese who had endured occupation by the French since 1884, the Japanese during the Pacific War, the French again until their defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and then by the Americans and their Korean and Australian allies.

The influence exerted by the anti-war movement is negligible when compared to the sacrifices made by generations of Vietnamese who dedicated their lives to the liberation of their homeland—and to the sacrifices made by those on the American side who fought with sincerity of purpose. That Vietnam is united and no longer colonized is due not to the anti-war movement but to the implacable determination characterized by the Viet Minh officer, a single-mindedness that Lt. Col. Moore recognized and respected in the North Vietnamese regulars who followed in that officer’s footsteps.

My last entry, which challenged the peace/anti-war movement to offer more than the tendentious narcissism of street marches, provoked a range of angry responses—most of which focused on my depiction of conventional protest as little more than hollow rhetoric. In doing so, they ignored both the substance and the subtleties of my argument:

  • I was paralyzed by the war in Iraq; Steve Himmer energized me and pointed to a way forward.
  • Military victory in Iraq is irrelevant, the political war is lost.
  • If the coalition “wins” militarily, they will eventually lose the war of occupation (as did the French and the United States in Vietnam). If they lose militarily, Islamic fundamentalism—and, consequently, terrorism—will be strengthened and energized.
  • We are now all at greater risk than had the war not been prosecuted.
  • We don’t have the right leadership. To put it bluntly, we’re fucked.
  • Chanting “End the war” and “We want peace” is a ludicrous response to the predicament we now find ourselves in.
  • I have some reading to do. (In other words, I can no longer sit on the sidelines but must engage at some level with the protest movement and work to find a solution.)

From the sobbing, handwringing, bruised egos, and despair that greeted my post arose—in my comments and in the comments on Steve’s and Burningbird’s posts—the beginnings of a determination to devise practical approaches to digging ourselves out of the shit we’re in. Steve Himmer understood exactly what I was saying (although he remains as committed as I am opposed to the tactics of conventional protest):

I don’t agree that these tactics are unsophisticated, because I’m a firm believe in intelligent, political ‘play’ as a radical critique of capitalist projects, and I also have greater faith in them as valuable—Johnson and Nixon both acknowledged the impact of protests on their Viet Nam policies—but I also have to agree with Jonathon in a way. There needs to be something else, too; there needs to be a proactive element to the peace movement to bolster the reactive we’ve been seeing so much of. We need to be able, when our marches are stopped in the street by those who disagree and demand of us, ‘If not war, what then?’ when we concur that Saddam Hussein should not remain in power (I won’t assume that all peace activists feel that way, but I assuredly do), we need to be able to answer firmly, powerfully, and with as much evidence, articulation, and forethought as the Neo-Con warhawks have been able to muster in pushing their destructive agenda.

Burningbird—after taking me to task for “mocking” those who have marched for peace and characterizing me as an exponent of Elegant Despair—came back with three superb postings:

Burningbird wrote too much for me to quote but this resonated:

The peace movement, or whatever we call it, does need to focus, and I think this conversation now is a good one and I’m appreciative that it’s started. But I also think there’s a deep disappointment underlying some of the pushback against the movement. Ultimately, we failed people — we didn’t stop the war and we didn’t come up with a alternative that would stop this war in time. Now, the coalition of Bush and Blair and Howard have invaded Iraq and we’re in for some nasty, nasty times. We failed the world by not stopping this. So now, we’re being asked, what are we going to do about it?

That I don’t have a high regard for the peace/anti-war movement will not surprise anyone who has read even a few of my war-related entries. Many of the Australian anti-Vietnam protestors of my generation are now sleek state and federal politicians, judges, university professors, or government bureaucrats—drawing fat salaries and looking forward to even fatter pensions while many of the veterans they spat on and reviled are either crazy, sick, dead, or damaged in a thousand other ways: struggling with guilt and shame, their marriages broken, the suicide rate amongst their children three times that of the general Australian community.

I can’t watch the current anti-war/peace protests without having my feelings contaminated by the bitterness and contempt I hold towards those who imagined they were doing good by denigrating our Vietnam veterans and magically wound up doing well.

It will be part of my struggle to put those feelings aside, although I know I’ll never join a march. But my criticism of conventional protest is based on more than anger and resentment. I believe with all my heart that the current anti-war/peace protests are based on a paradigm that is thirty years out of date.

I’d figured out by the time I was 19 years old that the Domino Theory was bullshit and that Vietnam posed no threat to anyone other than its immediate neighbors, Laos and Cambodia. So protestors could chant their slogans and wave their placards without exerting any significant influence but also—as long as they attacked the war and not the soldiers fighting it—without doing any real harm.

Our situation is radically different. Muslim fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism pose a grave threat to all of us. To paraphrase Ann Coulter, they want to invade our countries, kill our leaders, and convert us to Islam. Think I’m exaggerating? Pay $2.95 to the New York Times and read Paul Berman’s The Philosopher of Islamic Terror.

The word PEACE is not like a lump of anti-terrorist Kryptonite that will miraculously weaken the bad guys then gradually make them love us. Being against war is admirable in theory but the real challenge is to devise strategies that will safeguard our lives and our values and protect us from what are now tangible and terrible dangers. The neo-conservatives have dumped us in this mess and, as usual, courageous soldiers are expected to make unimaginable sacrifices. We have to figure out how to extricate ourselves. As Burningbird wrote, we have a great deal of thinking and work to do.

For death is the price we will pay for underestimating this tenacious enemy.

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Thursday 03 April 2003

Ideas and actions

An opinion I expressed in my previous entry—“If the coalition ‘wins’ militarily, they will eventually lose the war of occupation”—provoked the following comment:

It’s just pure racism to suggest that the Iraqi people are incapable of democracy. Or, if you’re not racist, then please explain why in the world you think democracy will fail in Iraq?

Statement Comment
If the coalition “wins” militarily, they will eventually lose the war of occupation the Iraqi people are incapable of democracy
democracy will fail in Iraq

Given that the only common words in my statement and the comment are “the”, “will”, and “of”, I simply cannot comprehend the imaginative leap (or linguistic distortion) required to make them equivalent.

This style of discourse is, however, the the logical outcome of years of political correctness: instead of addressing someone’s ideas or opinions with counter-arguments, you dismiss them as racist. Or sexist. Or anti-Semitic. Though quick, effective, and infinitely easier than thinking, it is at best intellectually dishonest and at worst an unwarranted calumny.

Why do I believe the coalition (mainly, in fact, the United States) will “eventually lose the war of occupation”?

Because, as I wrote in an earlier entry, “it will take perhaps a half a million troops to occupy Iraq and defend its fledgling ‘democracy’ against a new intifada that will make the last twenty years in Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel look mild by comparison.”

Because I believe that the Bush administration has neither the political and diplomatic skills nor the long-term commitment needed to establish and nurture a genuinely democratic Iraqi government in the face of internal dissent from those Iraqis who remain loyal to Saddam Hussein’s memory and external subversion from the many Middle Eastern states who are deeply hostile to Western democratic ideals.

Because I have no faith in the Bush administration’s ability to avoid what Steve Himmer describes as “another shameful and bloody Chile-esque manipulation, in which the democratically-elected leadership was unacceptable to the United States and was therefore sacrificed along with our ideals of fostering freedoms.”

The Iraqi people are just as capable of democracy as were the people of Chile. I was simply expressing my doubt that they will be given the opportunity to transform a capability into a reality.

I’ll note in passing the irony that the people of Iraq are being promised freedom and democracy by a man whom Ray Davis sums up as “consequence-free”:

Bush went AWOL, and speaks as a patriot; he failed in business, and remains rich; he snorted and drank and raised those who snort and drink, and pushes life imprisonment for dabblers; he lost an election, and became President; he dragged the FBI off his Saudi business associates and some of them attacked our country and Bush hid and bin Laden still hides, and Bush was praised for his bungling; he squanders our national treasury and destroys our tax base and increases government spending on anything that might profit his domestic business associates, and I still don’t see the so-called fiscally responsible turning against him. He keeps inviting disaster, and retribution keeps passing harmlessly through him and onto the nation.

But, let us return to the accusation of racism, which I’ll address by recalling an episode of NYPD Blue that screened recently in Australia (a year after it aired in the US). Detectives Baldwin Jones (played by Henry Simmons) and Greg Medavoy (Gordon Clapp) are investigating the firebombing of an electrical store, a crime for which the Arab owners accuse a neighbor who has obviously held a grudge against them since the September 11 attacks.

As Jones and Medavoy are about to interview the family in the hospital corridor, Detective Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) makes a throwaway remark that “they should give them [Americans of Arab descent] their own hospital until this blows over.” Jones, who is African-American, takes exception to the remark and rebukes Sipowicz, though he later confesses to his Assistant District Attorney girlfriend (Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon) that he’s had similar thoughts himself.

“It’s not what you think,” she replies. “It’s how you act.”

Her remark touched me, since the belief it expresses is so deeply at odds with what I was taught as a child: that thoughts, as well as acts, can be sins. They can’t, of course, since that would make us morally culpable for the murky depths of our unconscious, over which we have only the most tenuous control.

Unusually—since I can’t help analyzing the story structure and the niceties of the writing of any movie or TV show I’m watching—it only occurred to me a few days later what an extraordinary piece of dialog the writers, Bill Clark & Matt Olmstead, had crafted for actors Simmons and Beauvais-Nilon. And with what ingenuity they had devised a way to help viewers of the show deal constructively with the dark thoughts and feelings that had welled up in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

Thinking is one thing, they told us, acting is another. In this belief lies the essence of tolerance: for if we cannot forgive ourselves, how can we look upon and deal equitably with those around us? Between the “wrong” thought and the right action lies a process that David Brooks describes in a passage I’ve quoted before. Discussing Christopher Hitchens’ Why Orwell Matters, Brooks wrote:

Hitchens argues that Orwell’s most prominent quality was his independence, and it was an independence that had to be earned through willpower. Orwell was, Hitchens continues, something of a natural misanthrope: “He had to suppress his distrust and dislike of the poor, his revulsion from the Jews, his awkwardness with women, and his anti-intellectualism.” It was through continued acts of self-mastery that Orwell was able to overcome most of his natural prejudices, in order to see things as they really were and champion groups that needed championing. Orwell was always checking himself, which perhaps explains the tone of cool reserve that marks his prose.

All of us, like Orwell, harbor prejudices and anyone who says differently is either a liar, a hypocrite, or a fool. Just as anyone who has traveled extensively will have seen and experienced racism of one form or another. The best we can offer ourselves and each other is to try to emulate Orwell’s practice of “checking himself,” his “continued acts of self-mastery.”

Championing one group frequently requires criticizing another. While I do not resile from my remarks about Muslim fundamentalists and Islamic terrorists, I’m well aware that—as I’ve previously noted—“I need to occasionally corral my instictive exuberance, my heartfelt belief that conflict, and only conflict, offers the key to engaging an audience’s attention.” Though there is sometimes a fine line between the provocative and the offensive, nothing I have written could be construed by any reasonable person as “racist.” My recent entries have been all been written with the goal of contributing to what Steve Himmer describes as “a valuable conversation about how the peace movement should proceed.”

Steve’s own responses to my arguments, with which he finds much to disagree, have been exemplary in their honesty and intellectual rigor. I look forward to continuing the conversation in the direction he has mapped out.

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Friday 04 April 2003

A Minimalist March

In an entry titled Why March? Steve Himmer refutes my criticism of street marches as “red-daubed faces, drumming, banal chants, puerile street theater, trite placards, histrionics, self-indulgent moralizing, and wishful thinking.” What I’ve always regarded (and, to be honest, still regard) as a fundamental weakness of protest marches—that the marchers look like a disorganized and ineffectual rabble—Steve sees as their primary strength:

The individual voice in an election doesn’t individually matter. Done. In a march or a rally, on the other hand, that voice can matter—and it can matter without having either the individual voice or the collective subsumed. As 10,000 people march in a street, there is necessarily a unified message—we’re all marching for the same overarching goal, stating our opposition to war, in the current case. At the same time, each of us holds an individualized sign, or wears a uniquely sloganed t-shirt, or a mask, or performs a piece of personally important street theater. While the collective voice of the march can’t be ignored, neither can each individual voice welling up into the collective.

Why is this important, why does it matter particularly to the left? Because, as I’ve argued at length before, the contemporary liberal position has been hindered by a necessary inability to speak in a collective, representative voice by our own (correct) recognition that individual, varied voices exist and are relevant. A public protest that allows both individual and collective voices to be heard is one way (albeit it an imperfect one) of acknowledging both those voices without sacrificing the power of either. Far more than an election can.

Recently my friend Natsuko asked me what it would take for me to attend an anti-war march.

“Everyone would have to agree to wear only plain black clothes,” I told her. “There would be no chanting, no placards, no street theater, no drumming, no red-painted faces. Nothing but hundreds of thousands of black-clad people marching silently through the city.”

It’ll never happen but, if it did, I believe that such a demonstration would be an immensely persuasive theatrical event, with overwhelming moral and political force.

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Against fundamentalisms

A friend recently emailed me to ask: “Given that you recognize the threat posed by Islamic terrorism, do you really think the coalition forces should withdraw from Iraq now, as many peace activists are suggesting?”

Absolutely not, I replied. I’d assumed this would have been clear from my assertion that:

a coalition defeat—as in a negotiated withdrawal that leaves Saddam or his minions intact—will, as Dave Rogers suggests, “only guarantee far more death and destruction in the years to come.”

Dave Winer put the case for immediate withdrawal:

Then I came up with a new doctrine. It goes like this. If you have a choice, you have no excuse going to war. You can only go to war if you have no choice. I’m sorry Dubya. Let’s just put the tanks in reverse and bring the boys home. Say we’re sorry and ask for forgiveness. It’ll be a lot easier than playing it out. This war is just plain wrong

Here’s the deal — we can’t [win] the war in Iraq. Even if by some miracle we should win it militarily, our occupying force is going to be picked off by suicide bombers from all over the Middle East. It’ll be like Woodstock for our enemies. Imagine, hundreds of thousands of US troops a bus ride away, and throw in some CIA and FBI, and civilians from Bechtel and Lockheed-Martin. It’ll make Vietnam look like a pot party. It’s time to stick the tail between the legs and get the fuck out of there folks. This doesn’t smell good.

“Say we’re sorry and ask for forgiveness.”

And the infuriated and humiliated Arab/Muslim world will say what?

“Don’t worry about it. Everybody makes mistakes. No hard feelings. Let’s work together now to build a peaceful world.”

I reluctantly supported a UN-sanctioned invasion of Iraq. When it was clear that the Bush administration was determined to invade no matter what, I expressed the desire that the war be brought to a swift conclusion with the minimum casualties on both sides. (Given the overwhelming superiority of the coalition forces, it was inevitable that the Iraqi army would eventually be defeated.) I have, however, consistently argued against unilateral military action and the pre-emptive strike, the policies which underpin the current war.

My only concern, since I’ve started writing about the war again, has been with how its aftermath is managed. I believe that the call for an immediate cessation of hostilities is naive and unrealistic since it ignores the fact that, once the war started, there was no earthly possibility that it would end without Saddam Hussein’s removal. More importantly, retreating from the battlefield would send exactly the wrong message to the forces of Islamic terrorism.

Burningbird and Doc Searls have both argued against immediate withdrawal (though they may have reached that conclusion for different reasons than mine).

Burningbird wrote:

Once we entered the country, once we dropped the bombs, we started something and to leave now will just result in a stalemate that will result in yet more death in a country that’s seen too much of it. The same type of death that resulted when we encouraged the Iraqi people to revolt 12 years ago, and then didn’t stay around to help them. I bitterly regret that we started this war, but we can’t just leave now.

However, acknowledgement of finishing what we’ve started is not support. I do not support Bush and his administration. I do not support their short-sighted arrogance, or their frightening long term view for the Middle East.

Doc wrote:

Now that we’re in there, I want us to finish with minimal loss of life on all sides. I hope we take out Saddam Hussein’s regime and return the country to its oppressed people. Then I hope we go home.

In that spirit, I suggest that the anti-war/peace movement would do better to direct its energies not to stopping the war but rather to formulating policies for what occurs after the current Iraqi regime has been ousted.

This is how I replied to my email friend’s question…

I believe that this war was never about Islamic terrorism but rather constitutes the first stage of implementing the strategy for US military and political dominance outlined in the first draft of Paul Wolfowitz’s 1992 Defense Planning Guidance.

Therefore I see the next essential steps as:

  • “Winning” the war (though I believe that under the current US leadership any “victory” contains the seeds of eventual defeat).
  • Getting rid of Bush & Co.
  • Finding a diplomatic solution to the Palestinian situation that will guarantee the security of Israel and give the Palestinians their own state (replacing both Arafat and Sharon will probably be needed to achieve this).
  • Using a combination of diplomacy, economic sanctions, police investigation, covert counter-terrorist action, and small scale military engagements to combat Islamic terrorism.

In a Salon profile of Salman Rushdie, Michelle Goldberg describes the novelist as:

a defender of an idea even less fashionable, at the moment, than moral relativism — secular humanism. It’s a cause some of our best thinkers, such as Hitchens and Martin Amis, are increasingly taking up. Though hardly politically expedient, the fight against religion’s tyranny makes intellectual and emotional sense right now. It could even replace the struggle against first-world imperialism as the organizing principle of radical thought, encompassing as it does the fight against the lunatics of al-Qaida, the butchers in Gujarat, the hard-line settlers in the West Bank, the rapists in the Catholic Church, the bombers of abortion clinics and, of course, our own attorney general.

One of secular humanism’s greatest qualities is that it confers the same rights and freedoms regardless of whether one is a believer, an atheist, or an agnostic. For me, the real battle is against any fundamentalism which threatens those rights and freedoms.

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Wednesday 14 May 2003

From Dresden to Tokyo

Book covers: four books about the bombing of Nazi Germany

I’m immersed in the firebombing of Dresden. On Saturday night SBS showed the BBC Timewatch program, Bombing Germany. Waiting for me at the post office today was a copy of David Irving’s The Destruction of Dresden. Last week, Alexander McKee’s Dresden 1945: The Devil’s Tinderbox arrived in the mail. Both of these books are out of print, though easy enough to find via Abebooks. The Destruction of Dresden is by the David Irving, the notorious Holocaust denier. (Had I checked his website I could have downloaded a PDF of the 1995 reprint, instead of shelling out for a 1963 first edition.)

Yesterday, at Kinokuniya, I picked up Robin Neillands’ The Bomber War: The Allied Air Offensive Against Nazi Germany. Tomorrow I’ll see if I can locate a local copy of Denis Richards’ The Hardest Victory: RAF Bomber Command in the Second World War.

Since the Neillands and Richards books deal with the bombing of Nazi Germany in general terms, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five might be the only book still in print whose main focus is the firebombing of Dresden.

After reading a dozen or more books about the firebombing of Tokyo—almost all of which are out of print—it occurred to me that if I was to understand what happened in Tokyo I needed to know more about how the Allied bombing campaign against Germany was conducted. So, over the past six months, I read Martin Middlebrook’s The Nuremberg Raid, The Battle of Hamburg, The Scheweinfurt-Regensburg Mission, and The Berlin Raids. But, when dealing with the bombing of Germany, all roads lead to Dresden.

Five volume history of the Tokyo firebombingI’ve come to realize that General Curtis LeMay’s decision to abandon the precision bombing tactics the USAAF had used against military targets in Germany and, instead, to attack Japanese civilians must have been based on his observation of the RAF’s area bombing methods, which were directed almost exclusively against civilians. When I know enough about how Dresden was destroyed, I can re-read the books in English about the Tokyo firebombing. At the same time, I’m steadily improving my Japanese reading skills so that eventually I hope to tackle the five volume 東京大空襲・戦災誌 (Tokyo daikushu sensaishi - The Tokyo Air Raids: A Record of War Damage).

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Tuesday 20 May 2003

Dresden, Theresienstadt, Prague, Nuremberg

Dorothea Salo inquired (via Steve Himmer’s comments):

And where’ve you been, JD? Post count seems down lately.

Post count has been down, indeed. Thirteen posts in twenty days (including this one).

Where’ve I been? In Dresden, mainly.

Dresden, after the firestorm, February 1945

In Theresienstadt too.

Plan and aerial views of Theresienstadt

I had no idea that Theresienstadt (renamed Terezin after WWII) lies halfway between Dresden and Prague, which are only 70 miles apart. I’m taking a crash course in Central European geography.

Maps showing the location of Theresienstadt, near the River Elbe, midway between Dresden and Prague

As far as I can recall, Dresden is never mentioned in Sebald’s novel Austerlitz. After visiting Terezin, where his mother was interned in the ghetto before being deported to one of the Nazi death camps, Austerlitz leaves Prague to travel through Germany for the first time. But, whereas Dresden lies northwest of the Czech capital, Austerlitz heads southwest, through Pilsen, where he had passed with the Kindertransport in the summer of 1939, then on into the mountains dividing Bohemia from Bavaria until he reaches Nuremberg:

…and when I saw the name on a signal box in its German spelling of Nürnberg, which was unfamiliar to me, I remembered what Vera had said about my father’s account of the National Socialist Party rally of 1936 and the roars of acclamation rising from the people who had gathered here at the time.

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Wednesday 21 May 2003

Provocation and retribution

“I’ve been in Dresden too,” wrote language hat in a comment on my previous post, “by way of Victor Klemperer’s amazing diaries, translated as I Will Bear Witness. Scary how as soon as Hitler takes over everyone starts falling into line. And every time a cousin emigrates you want to holler ‘Get out while there’s time, dammit!’”

Tonight I saw a brief interview with Antony Beevor—author of Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943 and, more recently, The Fall of Berlin 1945—who is in Sydney for Writers Week. The interviewer baldly asked him what caused the German descent into depravity. After carefully pointing out that not all Germans were “war criminals,” Beevor mentioned Goebbels’ brilliant manipulation of fear and hatred, of both the Jews and the Slavs, as well as Hitler’s strategy of gradual incremental change. “You only have to read Victor Klemperer’s diaries,” said Antony Beevor, “to see how it happened, a tiny step at a time.”

As I continue to read books and watch films about the persecution and extermination of the Jews and the annihilation of German civilians in the Allied bombing raids, it’s difficult not to imagine one as retribution for the other.

In W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, the protagonist recounts a conversation with Vera, his nurse in Prague before he was sent to England in the Kindertransport:

But to come back to my story… It was when I had returned from the Schönborn Garden, as we were sitting in Vera’s flat again, that she first told me about my parents at greater length: their origins so far as she knew of them, the course of their lives, and the annihilation, within the space of only a few years, of their entire existence. Despite her dark and rather melancholy appearance, so I think Vera began, said Austerlitz, your mother Agáta was a very genial, on occasion even light-hearted woman. In this she was just like her father, old Austerlitz, who owned a fez and slipper-making factory in Sternberg which he had founded while the country was still under Austrian rule, and who had the ability of simply ignoring any unpleasantness. Once, when he was visiting this house, I heard him speak of the considerable boom in his business since Mussolini’s men had taken to wearing that semi-Oriental item of headgear the fez, saying that he could hardly manufacture and export enough of them to Italy. At the time, Agáta herself, secure as she felt in the recognition she had won much faster than she dared to hope in her career as an opera and operetta singer, thought that everything would turn out all right in the end, whereas Maximilian, in spite of the cheerful disposition which he shared with Agáta, had been convinced ever since I knew him, said Vera, so Austerlitz told me, that the parvenus who had come to power in Germany and the corporate bodies and other human swarms endlessly proliferating under the new regime, a spectacle which inspired him, as he often said, with a sense of positive horror, had abandoned themselves from the first to a blind lust for conquest and destruction, taking its cue from the magic word thousand which the Reichskanzler, as we could all hear on the wireless, repeated constantly in his speeches. A thousand, ten thousand, twenty thousand, thirty-seven thousand, two hundred and forty thousand, a thousand times a thousand, thousands upon thousands: such was the refrain he barked out in his hoarse voice, drumming into the Germans the notion that the promise of their own greatness was about to be fulfilled. None the less, said Vera, Austerlitz continued, Maximilian did not in any way believe that the German people had been driven into their misfortune; rather, in his view, they had entirely re-created themselves in this perverse form, engendered by every individual’s wishful thinking and bound up with false family sentiment, and had then brought forth, as symbolic exponents of their innermost desires, so to speak, the Nazi grandees, whom Maximilian regarded without exception as muddle-headed and indolent. From time to time, so Vera recollected, said Austerlitz, Maximilian would tell the tale of how once, after a trade-union meeting in Teplitz in the early summer of 1933, he had gone a little way up into the Erzgebirge, where he came upon some day-trippers in a beer garden who had been buying all manner of things in a village on the German side of the border, including a new kind of boiled sweet which had, embedded in its sugary mass, a raspberry-coloured swastika that literally melted in the mouth. At the sight of these Nazi treats, Maximilian had said, he suddenly realized that the Germans had wholly reorganized their production lines, from heavy industry down to the manufacturing of items such as these vulgar sweets, not because they had been ordered to do so but each of his own accord, out of enthusiasm for the national resurgence. Vera went on, said Austerlitz, to tell me that Maximilian visited Austria and Germany several times in the 1930s, to gain a more accurate idea of general developments, and that she remembered precisely how, immediately after returning from Nuremberg, he had described the Führer’s prodigious reception at the Party rally. Hours before his arrival, the entire population of Nuremberg and indeed people from much further afield, crowds flocking in not just from Franconia and Bavaria but from the most remote parts of the country, Holstein and Pomerania, Silesia and the Black Forest, stood shoulder to shoulder all agog with excitement along the predetermined route, until at last, heralded by roars of acclamation, the motorcade of heavy Mercedes limousines came gliding at walking pace down the narrow alley which parted the sea of radiant uplifted faces and the arms outstretched in yearning. Maximilian had told her, said Vera, that in the middle of this crowd, which had merged into a single living organism racked by strange, convulsive contractions, he had felt like a foreign body about to be crushed and then excreted. From where he stood in the square outside the Lorenzkirche, he said, he saw the motorcade making its slow way through the swaying masses down to the Old Town, where the houses with their pointed and crooked gables, their occupants hanging out of the windows like bunches of grapes, resembled a hopelessly over­crowded ghetto into which, so Maximilian had said, the long-awaited saviour was now making his entry. It was in just the same vein, said Vera, that Maximilian later repeatedly described the spectacular film of the Party rally which he had seen in a Munich cinema, and which confirmed his suspicions that, out of the humiliation from which the Germans had never recovered, they were now developing an image of themselves as a people chosen to evangelize the world. Not only did the overawed spectators witness the Führer’s aeroplane descending slowly to earth through towering mountain ranges of cloud; not only was the tragic history they all shared invoked in the ceremony honouring the war dead during which, as Maximilian described it to us, Hitler and Höss and Himmler strode down the broad avenue lined, in straight serried ranks, with columns and companies created by the power of the new state out of a host of immovable German bodies, to the accompaniment of a funeral march which stirred the innermost soul of the entire nation; not only might one see warriors pledging themselves to die for the Fatherland, and the huge forests of flags mysteriously swaying as they moved away by torch­light into the dark—no, said Vera, Maximilian told us that a bird’s-eye view showed a city of white tents extending to the horizon, from which as day broke the Germans emerged singly, in couples or in small groups, forming a silent procession and pressing ever closer together as they all went in the same direction, following, so it seemed, some higher bidding, on their way to the Promised Land at last after long years in the wilderness.

In Alexander McKee’s Dresden 1945: The Devil’s Tinderbox a young woman, Eva Beyer, who was seventeen years old at the time of the bombing of Dresden, describes her experiences while doing volunteer Red Cross work at the main city rail station:

Once in mid-January I was on duty and the train which drew in had been bombed on the way. What I saw there was worse than horror. Not only were the people squeezed together in a goods train, but they had to suffer hunger and thirst and the bombs, too. There were so many injured on that train that we didn’t know where to start. The screams and cries for help were almost unbearable. We could bandage their wounds and satisfy their thirst and hunger, but not their emotional suffering. Many died from their injuries, because our help came too late.

I bent down to a woman who had a baby at her breast, to see if I could help, for she was smeared with blood. She was dead but the child was alive. Beside her lay an old man. He was her father. He called: “Annie, come and help me!” His arm was torn to pieces. When we told him that Annie was dead, he broke down completely and sat crying: “What is going to happen to us? My son-in-law in the war, my daughter dead, a two-months-old baby, and an eight-year-old boy.” The old man clung to me, asking: “What can we do next? We have lost our homes, our possessions. Oh God, what have we done, that we are being punished like this? Can there really be a God who allows such things?”

I was shocked the first time I read Maximilian’s account of the new kind of boiled sweet with its embedded raspberry-coloured swastika and of his—and, one presumes, Sebald’s—belief that the German people had not been driven into their misfortune but had “entirely re-created themselves in this perverse form, engendered by every individual’s wishful thinking and bound up with false family sentiment” and that Hitler and his henchmen, rather than blindfolding Germany and leading its people into catastrophe, were the “symbolic exponents of their innermost desires.”

W.G. Sebald's On the Natural History of DestructionA week ago, Desbladet, commenting on my post about books on the Allied bombing campaign, drew my attention to a Guardian profile of On the Natural History of Destruction, which belongs in my list, of course, as does Jörg Friedrich’s Der Brand: Deutschland im Bombenkrieg 1940-1945.

But Der Brand has not yet been translated into English and I’ve put off buying Sebald’s book—partly because I have a policy of not buying hardcover editions unless the book is out of print, mainly because I want to read all the other books first (saving the best till last, one might say).

In that Guardian profile, Sebald is quoted as saying:

If you know in the generation before you that your parents, your uncles and aunts were tacit accomplices, it’s difficult to say you haven’t anything to do with it. I’ve always felt I had to know what happened in detail, and to try to understand why it should have been so.

I looked at On the Natural History of Destruction again in the bookshop tonight, and saw that at the end of his essay Sebald describes Hitler’s enthusiastic response to Goering’s plan for setting densely packed London ablaze with incendiary bombs—just as the British would do to Hamburg, the British and Americans to Dresden, and the Americans to Tokyo and dozens of other Japanese cities. “Most Germans,” Sebald writes, “understand that we actually provoked the annihilation of the cities in which we once lived.”

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Thursday 22 May 2003

Coercion and consent

“You might also be interested in reading Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which I read back in Feb. or March,” suggested Elaine Nelson, in response to my post about ordinary Germans’ complicity in Nazi war crimes. “I didn’t review it in my media diet blog, but I put a quote into a blog entry about women and war.”

Although I was aware of Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, I recall being put off by the polarized reception the book received upon publication. But, following Elaine’s recommendation, I checked it out at Amazon, only to find—I guess not surprisingly— reviews that are sharply divided between those which characterize the book as brilliant and original and those which describe it as a partisan and repetitive PhD dissertation. I put Hitler’s Willing Executioners in the “maybe” category and returned to reading about the bombing of Germany.

Book cover - Robert Gellately: Backing Hitler, Consent and Coercion in Nazi GermanyLater in the day I was looking for something else at Amazon when it occurred to me that it had been a while since I’d checked out my recommendations. At the top of the list was Robert Gellately’s Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany. Why was I recommended this? Because I’d recently viewed Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Only occasionally am I pleasantly surprised by Amazon’s machine-generated recommendations. In this case, Elaine’s human endorsement had done the trick.

And, it seems, all paths lead to Victor Klemperer. In his introduction, Gellately writes:

A sense of how Germans responded positively to various waves of persecution and even to the spirit of Nazi ‘justice’, is conveyed on almost every page of Professor Victor Klemperer’s recently published diary. It represents the most detailed chronicle we have of the implementation of the repression, especially the measures aimed at the Jews. Klemperer recorded one telling conversation he had in late February 1935 with his last two students, whom he said were ‘completely anti-Nazi’. The fact that they persisted in studying with this Jewish professor showed they had some civil courage. However, when their discussion turned to a recent newspaper story about the trial and execution of two young aristocratic women in Berlin, the students said they found the court’s verdict ‘totally appropriate’. They saw no fault in the procedures of the secret trial, nor were they troubled in the least that the accused had been denied essential legal rights. Klemperer concluded sadly that ‘the sense of justice is being lost everywhere in Germany, is being systematically destroyed’. In this book I examine the background of such stories, explore how coercion and consent were entwined, and finally how and why the German people backed the Nazi dictatorship.

They saw no fault in the procedures of the secret trial, nor were they troubled in the least that the accused had been denied essential legal rights. Doesn’t that sound unpleasantly familiar? Coercion and consent, in the name of Homeland Security.

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Sunday 10 August 2003

As We May Incinerate

“Ah. They destroyed all the napalm in 2001, you see,” writes Jill Walker. “What they dropped on Iraq wasn’t napalm, it was Mark 77. Well, yes, it does has the same effect but the chemical structure is slightly different. Really!”

Reading Jill’s entry—after I’d read the Sydney Morning Herald article to which she refers—and knowing that Jill is a hypertext theorist, I couldn’t help reflecting on the connection between hypertext and napalm, via Vannevar Bush, whose seminal essay As We May Think was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in July 1945.

Vannevar BushIn an article by Torill Mortensen & Jill Walker titled Blogging Thoughts, the co-authors summarize Bush’s ideas:

Computers were deliberately designed to reflect and augment our thinking. Vannevar Bush, a prominent developer of analogue computers, argued for mechanical, non-hierarchical ways of organising information which would be more suited to the associative thought patterns of our brains. In a 1949 article tellingly titled ‘As We May Think’, Bush sketches designs for a device he called the memex. Though never realised, Bush’s descriptions and thoughts about the memex are commonly seen as direct ancestors of today’s digital hypertext.

And connect Bush’s memex with blogging:

A blogger can be seen as a modern version of Vannevar Bush’s trail blazers: a person who links separate documents together, creating a trail or a path through them for others to follow.

In addition to being the prototypical “hypertext theorist,” Vannevar Bush was the director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), the US government agency responsible for coordinating R&D for most of the new American weapons developed during World War II, including the proximity fuze, the bazooka, the DUKW amphibious vehicle, the atomic bomb, and napalm.

In his biography of Vannevar Bush, Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the Twentieth Century, G. Pascal Zachary describes a conversation between Bush and General “Hap” Arnold, the head of the United States Army Air Force:

Bush… had piqued Arnold’s curiosity about firebombing in the first place by telling him about a new incendiary jelly called napalm. After hearing about the jelly, Arnold imagined the terrifying power of firebombs, fixated on one chilling image of napalm thrown in all directions and burning with such intensity that if dropped near the entrance to a cave or a building, they caused all the air to rush out and anyone inside died from lack of oxygen.

Since napalm was invented in 1942 by Dr. Louis Fieser and his team at Harvard, it is quite probable that Vannevar Bush was the first person to tell General Arnold about the new incendiary. It is, however, highly unlikely that Bush had “piqued Arnold’s curiosity about firebombing in the first place” nor that it was the first time Arnold had “imagined the the terrifying power of firebombs.” The possibility of subjecting vulnerable Japanese cities to attack by fire had arisen in the 1920s and 1930s, when American strategic bombing theorists were trying to imagine how a war with Japan might be conducted.

According to Kenneth P. Werrell’s Blankets of Fire: U.S. Bombers over Japan during World War II,

The bombing of Japan was very much in the public’s mind on both sides of the Pacific. Knowledgeable Americans and all Japanese knew that the latter’s cities were extremely vulnerable to fire, as demonstrated by the numerous earthquakes Japan had suffered throughout its history, particularly the earthquake of 1923. The fires from that monster quake raged for three days and in Tokyo cost the lives of about 110,000 and destroyed about 20 percent of the buildings. To the Japanese “the disaster was really the most horrible ever known since authentic history began.” The impact of the 1923 earthquake was the basis for much of the speculation concerning the potential of air attack, particularly fire raids, against Japan.

During the 1920s, according to Werrell, the leading American proponent of strategic bombing, General Billy Mitchell, “often asserted that the congested and flammable Japanese cities were especially vulnerable to air attack. He prophesied that bombers would lay waste to these cities from bases in the Aleutians, Kuriles, eastern Siberia, or Kamchatka.”

And Werrell quotes the top army airman, Oscar Westover as saying in 1937 that:

Japan was menaced by air bases in Siberia and “may expect a ruthless bombardment of her tinderbox cities. She [Japan] has not forgotten the terrible fire which followed the earthquake.” Incendiary attack, Westover surmised, would equal many such earthquakes.

The Japanese were equally worried, with many experts predicting that an air attack on Tokyo would result in destruction and casualties comparable to the 1923 earthquake or the other great fire that ravaged Edo (as Tokyo was called then): the Meireki Fire of 1657, which killed at least 100,000 people, though some estimates run as high as 200,000. Fire was “the greatest fear of all Japanese” and yet the Japanese firefighting service was poorly trained and ill-equipped to deal with fire on the scale being contemplated by bombing theorists.

In early 1940 General Claire Chennault also suggested the firebombing of Japanese cities:

Chennault wrote Hap Arnold concerning the potential of small incendiaries against oriental cities. The United States, Arnold responded, was only interested in the precision bombing of military targets, and the “use of incendiaries against cities was contrary to our national policy of attacking military objectives.” Chennault countered that, with 500 aircraft built, crewed, and maintained by Americans, [his Chinese airforce] would be able to “burn out the industrial heart of the [Japanese] Empire with fire-bomb attacks on the teeming bamboo ant heaps of Honshu and Kyushu.” Whereas Arnold and the airmen rejected the idea, Roosevelt was delighted by the proposal and ordered his top cabinet officials to work on the project.

General Arnold’s refusal to countenance the firebombing of Japanese cities was an unambiguous expression of the USAAF’s tactical doctrine of precision bombing: in Werrell’s words, “the destruction of vital physical objectives, not the killing or the terrorizing of populations.” As late as 1939, one of the USAAF Tactical School lecturers

objected to the concept of the direct attack of civilians with bombs and gas, even though “most of the European nations are definitely contemplating such a method of attack.” Such action, he continued, is “repugnant to our humanitarian principles, and is certainly a method of warfare that we would adopt only with great reluctance and regret.”

Yet on 15 November 1941 Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall gave a secret briefing to seven Washington journalists in which he told them that the US was on the brink of war with Japan and “intended to fight a merciless war, with B-17s being ‘dispatched immediately to set the paper cities of Japan on fire. There won’t be any hesitation about bombing civilians—it will be all out.’”

Most of General Marshall’s subordinates in the Army Air Force did not agree, believing instead that precision bombing could be achieved with the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator bombers, each fitted with up to ten .50-caliber machine guns and equipped with the Norden bombsight. They were confident that by dispatching 300 bombers or more at a time, the heavily-armed formation could fight its way to the target and back without the fighter escort that the British and Germans had already discovered was essential for any kind of daylight bombing. Once over the target, the highly accurate Norden bombsight would ensure that no bombs would go astray and cause civilian casualties.

According to Werrell, tests of bombing accuracy conducted in the late thirties showed that the bombers could get their bombs “within 270 feet of the aiming point from altitudes below 10,000 feet—extrapolated to 20,000 feet, this was equal to less than 460 feet.” The airmen called this “pickle-barrel” bombing, failing to realize that a theory “proven” under clear American skies with no enemy opposition would count for little when applied to the real situation in Europe where dense cloud was common, the flak (anti-aircraft fire) was concentrated and accurate, and the German fighter pilots were well-trained, resolute, and courageous.

Under the optimum conditions—clear weather, light flak, and few or no fighters—precision bombing was indeed possible, as shown by the raid on the Messerschmitt aircraft factory at Regensberg on 17 August 1943. Colonel Curtis LeMay’s force bombed so precisely that, according to Martin Middlebrook’s The Schweinfurt-Regensberg Mission:

The people of Regensberg were full of admiration and respect for the accuracy of the American bomber crews. One [German] lady made me promise to record her comment: “Everyone in the town was surprised that the Barmherzigebrüder Hospital was untouched when almost every building in the factory was hit. We all said that it was a perfect example of precision bombing.

But under the conditions that frequently prevailed over Germany, the Eighth Air Force was forced to bomb “blind” using radar during the day, as the British did at night. As late as January 1945, it was accepted by USAAF bomber commanders that “the average bombing error using instruments was still about two miles and that to hit the target involved drenching an area with bombs to achieve any results.”

In that respect, although the American aircrew regarded precision bombing as morally superior to the British methods, the results of many USAAF raids were hardly different to those of the RAF’s area attacks, which used incendiary bombs to burn out the workers’ housing in the center of many German industrial cities. Ironically, LeMay had to resort to area bombing when the unpredictable weather and the high-altitude jetstream made precision bombing against Japanese targets virtually impossible.

By March 1945, when (the now) General LeMay was under pressure to achieve results in the air war over Japan, the USAAF had a variety of available incendiary munitions, most of them developed after the US had entered the war. Werrell explains that the US airmen “recognized that incendiary conditions in Japan differed from those in Germany”:

80 percent of Japanese cities were built with wood and paper, whereas 95 percent of German cities were constructed of brick and stone. Roof construction was most important, as the incendiary had to penetrate into the building’s interior to be effective, which was easier to do in the straw or thatch roofs of many of Japan’s structures. In addition, Japanese cities were much more crowded, with the result that fires would be more difficult to control. And although German fire-fighting capabilities were perhaps the best in the world, Japanese firefighters were few in number and their equipment was sparse.

By 1941, the AAF had two incendiary bombs: the 73 pound M-47 (for penetrating roofs) and the four pound M-50, based on a British design, which easily ignited wooden buildings. The M-50 was dropped in a cluster of 34 bombs, which separated a few thousand feet over the target, ensuring that the firebombs were “distributed for maximum effect.”

However, as Werrell explains, “a third incendiary bomb… became the AAF fire starter of choice:”

In September 1941 Arnold wrote that U.S. airmen required an incendiary bomb and urged that a substitute be found for magnesium, which was in short supply. Jellied gasoline, or napalm, was one of the fillers developed and has been the standard ever since. The end product was small (3 inches in diameter and 20 inches long) and light (weighing only 6.2 pounds). It was first tested in early 1942 and proved superior to all other small bombs under development. (The advantage of small bombs was that they could start many fires and overwhelm firefighters.) One of its negative characteristics, however, was that it tumbled as it fell, which proved a major problem since it had to hit a target with its nose to ignite the fuse. In 1943 the bomb was fitted with a three-foot cloth streamer—a stabilizing fin would have been too bulky for the small device—and it solved the problem. Initially, this bomb was called [the] M-56, and then was redesignated the M-69.

Diagrams of M-69 incendiary bomb
M-19 Aimable Cluster containing 38 M-69 incendiary bombs
Nihon kūshū: beigun ga kiroku shita
(An Account of the Air Raids on Japan—Based on US Military Records)

The first napalm bomb was used in the invasion of Tinian which commenced on 23 July 1944—after nearby Saipan had been captured. These islands in the Marianas, once taken, would provide sites for airfields from which B-29s could attack Japan. (The 509th Composite Group, which dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was based on Tinian.)

By the time the B-29s of LeMay’s XXI Bomber Command took off from Guam, Saipan, and Tinian on the evening of 9 March 1945, the M-69 had been thoroughly trialled:

To provide more realistic tests of incendiary devices, U.S. military authorities built replicas of both a German and Japanese village at two locations. They went to great lengths to duplicate conditions as closely as possible. The Japanese “village” at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, consisted of a dozen two-family houses complete with wood, tatami (straw floor covering), and furniture simulating Japanese construction. Tests began there in May and lasted through September 1943. Four types of bombs were used, with the M-69 proving to be the most effective. When the results of these tests were challenged by the British, who had been running their own incendiary tests, the tests were reassessed. Experts concluded that the Dugway tests were done under conditions that were drier than those of Japan, while British conditions had been too wet, since the climate of Japan is more like that of eastern North Carolina than that of either Utah or Great Britain. In further tests at Elgin Field [Florida] in April 1944, B-17s dropped incendiaries on surrogate Japanese houses. Firefighters reached the fires three and a half minutes after the incendiaries ignited and found five or six fires burning that could not be handled by anything except the major fire equipment of large city fire departments. All of the buildings were destroyed.

German housing at the Dugway Proving Ground(Though the Japanese village at Dugway was completely annihilated, an article by Jonathan Glancey describes the “single block of high-gabled, prewar Berlin working-class housing” that remains in the Utah desert. “It is accurate in every respect. And it should be: commissioned by the chemical warfare corps of the US army, it was designed by Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953), the German architect who settled in the US in 1941 after a spell in England.” Even more bizarre is the fact that “German-emigré set designers from Hollywood’s RKO studio” used their expertise to design “the proletarian Berlin interiors down to the last detail.” Recently the remaining building in the German village has been repurposed as “a training center for tactical offense against domestic terrorism.”)

“Sixteen square miles of the city [of Tokyo] was destroyed,” writes Robin Neillands in The Bomber War, about the March 9/10 raid on Tokyo:

18 per cent industrial, 63 per cent commercial, and the entire working-class residential zone, amounting to around 250,000 houses. The US Strategic Bombing Survey estimated that 87,792 people lost their lives, 40,918 suffered injuries, and over 1 million lost their homes on that one mission. And yet this raid on Tokyo is virtually unknown outside Japan. It is a fair assumption that every reader of this book will know about Dresden but that not one in a hundred—at a generous estimate—will know what happened to Tokyo on 10 March 1945, just three weeks later.

In the ABC radio documentary, Tokyo’s Burning, B-29 pilot Chester Marshall recalled the experience of bombing Tokyo that night:

You know, you didn’t know whether you were killing a lot of women and children or what. But I do know one thing, you could at 5,000 feet you could smell the flesh burning. I couldn’t eat anything for two or three days. You know it was nauseating, really. We just said “What is that I smell?” And it’s a kind of a sweet smell, and somebody said, “Well that’s flesh burning, had to be.”

As for Vannevar Bush, “the father of hypertext,” it seems he never forgot either napalm or Tokyo. In his biography of Bush, G. Pascal Zachary writes that Merle Tuve, whose team developed the proximity fuze under Bush’s direction, believed

that Bush suffered from war guilt. Not from the atomic bomb, but from his role in aiding the ghastly firebomb raids against Japan. “For years after the war Van Bush would wake up screaming in the night because… he burned Tokyo,” Tuve later recalled. “The proximity fuze didn’t bother him badly… even the atomic bomb didn’t bother him as much as jellied gasoline [napalm].”

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Saturday 31 July 2004

Patriotism and the martial state

Late yesterday afternoon my sister, having made me a soy milk cappuccino, was watching the news on TV in the next room while I was setting up her new Dell PC. Actually, to tell the truth, I was reading Dennis Keene’s translation of Maruya Sai’ichi’s Grass for My Pillow (笹まくら) while waiting for 12.9MB of Windows Update files to download.

Suddenly she called out, “Quick, come and see this!”

John Kerry salutes“This” was John Kerry saluting the crowd while saying “I’m John Kerry and I’m reporting for duty.”

“Americans are weird, aren’t they?” she said. “They really believe in all that patriotic stuff.”

“They sure do,” I replied. “Even the Democrats, whom you might expect to be a bit more skeptical. They make good computers though.”

This latter observation wasn’t strictly correct since the Dell PC had been assembled in Malaysia from components designed in the United States, Japan, & Taiwan and manufactured who knows where. But, since setting up the PC had gone without a hitch (and had only taken four hours, much of which I spent reading Maruya’s novel), I was happy to give Americans all the credit. I’d even caught myself, in a brief moment of weakness, thinking favorably about Microsoft.

We’d both responded to Kerry’s performance as I suspect most Australians would, with a mixture of bemusement and incredulity. An Australian politician—even a distinguished war veteran—who saluted while telling an audience that he was “reporting for duty” would be forced to retreat under a barrage of fruit and empty bottles, thrown at him by those who weren’t rolling around on the floor laughing.

Australian flagFor, whereas the American character contains a strong thread of idealism, Australians have traditionally been cynical and pragmatic. We don’t revere the office of the Prime Minister as Americans do that of their President. We have no Bill of Rights. We didn’t fight to become independent of Great Britain. We never had a Civil War. The vast majority of Australians couldn’t recite a single sentence from our Constitution. Nor do we share the deep attachment that I’ve seen Americans—and Canadians—display towards their flag and national anthem. It doesn’t help, of course, that the British flag—the Union Jack—occupies a quarter of the area of the Australian flag and that the national anthem is God Save the Queen. (Oops!)

That’s because Australia, as it is now, started out as a British penal settlement and, until recently, has been a largely European outpost on the edge of Asia. We’ve never believed, as Herman Melville did, and—I suspect—many Americans still believe, that “we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.” We value the liberties we possess but, at the same time, we’ve always relied on others—first Britain, now the United States—to guarantee those liberties against external threat. In the Asian schoolyard, particularly, we’ve always had an older brother.

In return for that protection we’ve acted not as a martial nation but, in Peter Hartcher’s words, as “a client state, following its senior alliance partners into wars. Australian warfare is a derivative of the war-fighting policy of other countries, first Britain and then the US.” We’ve taken part—occasionally in our own interests, mainly in the interests of Britain or the United States—in the Sudan War, the Boer War, the Boxer Uprising, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency, the Indonesian Confrontation, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the Iraq War.

Only once in recent history has Australia acted independently of its “senior alliance partners,” and then it was not to wage war but to organize and lead a multinational peacekeeping force in 1999 to protect the East Timorese from the violence of the Indonesian-backed militia that was opposed to East Timor’s independence.

The United States, on the other hand, is a martial nation.

On January 28, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, testified at a House Armed Services Committee hearing that 322,000 US soldiers are deployed or forward stationed in over 120 countries. As Hartcher notes, the United States:

…accounts for 5 per cent of the world’s population, 20 per cent of the world economy, and fully 50 per cent of global defence spending. It is structured for war.

In the 228 years since it declared independence, the US has made 200 military interventions abroad, says the Congressional Research Service, an average of one every 14 months.

It has much less experience in introducing democracy than it does in waging war, incidentally. It has made 16 attempts, of which four have succeeded, says the Washington-based journal Foreign Policy.

The journal defines success as the survival of a functioning democratic system 10 years after the first US intervention. The success stories? Japan, Germany, Panama and Grenada.

Of the 43 presidents in the history of the US, about a quarter, 11 of them, have been former generals or military leaders. This is not a judgment but an observation: with this structure, this history, and this tradition of leadership, the US is a martial nation. And whoever is elected president on November 2, this is not going to change.

In this light, it’s difficult to take seriously John Kerry’s promise to “bring back this nation’s time-honored tradition: the United States of America never goes to war because we want to; we only go to war because we have to.”

In other words, the US has gone to war—not because it wanted to, but because it had to—once every 14 months for the last 228 years.

Even if the Congressional Research Service got it wrong and Americans have made not 200 but only 100 military interventions abroad, or 50 interventions, since the Declaration of Independence, that’s still one every 2 years & 4 months (or 4 years & 8 months). Which means John Kerry is suggesting that, ever since declaring independence, a reluctant United States has been under merciless, unrelenting pressure to go to war.

There’s another possible explanation. That the US has to go to war, not in the sense that Kerry uses—of being forced by external circumstances—but rather because, as one of Maruya’s characters in Grass for My Pillow, suggests: “The state has no other objective other than that of making war.”

Maruya’s intricately structured novel tells the story of Hamada Shokichi, who by 1965 has worked for 20 years as an administrative clerk at a conservative university. In October 1940, rather than obeying his call-up orders, Hamada disappeared, evading military service by posing as an itinerant peddler for the duration of the war.

As translator Keene notes, “the most striking feature of the novel is the disorganized chronology of the five wartime years.” Thus, towards the end of the book, Hamada recalls a conversation in early 1940 with his best friend, Sakai, after both had attended the funeral of another friend who, once drafted and unable to endure the bullying and beatings that were standard treatment for new army recruits, had hung himself.

Hamada has already decided that “The China Incident” (the name given by the Japanese government to the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945) was “merely the prosecution of open war under a false name, and that the Japanese army was a totally corrupt and terrifying institution.”

For this reason he’d decided he could not ally himself with that institution, preferring to sacrifice his liberty as a citizen for the sake of his freedom as a human being, and thus arrived at the conclusion that actual resistance of the draft was the only course of action open to him.

Hamada has always thought about war and the military in personal terms, rather than in any broader theoretical sense and so, rather taken by the suggestion that the essential purpose of the state is to wage war, he is eager to engage Sakai’s argument:

“Surely it’s not that simple. What about a permanently neutral state like Switzerland, or Japan during the Tokugawa period?”

“Those are exceptions, the very few exceptions, which is why people notice them. The true” (he heavily stressed the word) “aim of the state, the principle on which it is based, is the making of war.”

“But it has other aims, doesn’t it? The prosperity of the people, cultural advancement?”

“Those are merely aims it pretends to have, or they’re just temporary ones. Its real aim…”

“I’m not sure,” said Hamada, implying by his tone of voice that he rejected the idea.

“Look, they say the Spartans expressed their love of country in terms of war, and the Athenians did it in cultural terms. But that’s all wrong. The aim of both city states was conquest, and it was just some sort of fluke the Athenians produced that culture when what their state was really all about was war. The state’s got nothing to do with culture. Or at least that’s what it looks like to me. The only states in existence are ones that wage war.”

Sakai goes on to list the wars that Japan has engaged in since the Meiji Restoration of 1866-69: the Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War, the Great War, the Manchurian Incident…

Hamada didn’t reply this time. He remained silent, thinking about those festoons of the flags of all nations you saw at school sports days and in large restaurants in department stores, that string of vulgar colors of all kinds, reds, greens, blues, yellows, swaying in the air. Was the real intention of such displays, both for the child watching with apparently innocent wonder the lurid bursts of brilliance in the sky and for the middle-aged woman eating her solid, boring lunch beneath it, an announcement that there were all these countries in the world and we would have the pleasure in the near future of fighting the whole lot of them, much like those strings of photographs of film actresses in magazines that serve only to stimulate masculine lust?

Not completely convinced, Hamada asks Sakai why the state should aim only at making war? His friend offers the standard left-wing explanation, that war is the “most wasteful of all human activities,” that capitalism requires waste “in order to achieve profits,” and that “the state is in the hands of the capitalists.” (My friend Natsuko explained the Iraq war in almost identical terms.)

“What about Soviet Russia?”

Sakai couldn’t answer that one, and shut his mouth tight in what looked like petulance.

Hamada leaves the room to get Sakai an ashtray and, as he goes back upstairs, he decides that Sakai’s theory is “just too dreadful to be believed” and instead conceives his own explanation: that the state doesn’t have any aim at all, an idea that Sakai believes is even more terrifying. Hamada persists:

“I’m not all that sure how to go on, but, say, something like this. Since basically it doesn’t have any aim, it’s difficult for people to support it, because there’s nothing there you can give yourself to. So it develops all sorts of tensions within itself; things like party strife, class warfare happen easily. So you need some kind of outside tension, some external pressure, to hold it all together. It’s the only way …”

“So you’re saying the state doesn’t create a national unity in order to handle a war situation or the possibility of one, but wars are started to create the national unity itself; or at least the threat of war is used to do the same thing?”

“Does that make sense? I’m not all that sure myself.”

“It makes sense. At least that must be one aspect of it. It’s impossible to be completely confident of what you’re saying when talking about questions as massive as these.”

“Still, whatever way you put it, finally it comes down to what you first said. It’s the state itself that’s bad. It’s not capitalism, it’s not politics, it’s just the state, that spectral power that is going to turn us into soldiers.”

Except that Hamada refuses to be turned into a soldier whereas Sakai acquiesces. Both survive the war. Sakai becomes a successful businessman while Hamada—a minor bureaucrat—sees himself as a comparative failure. Until he realizes that he must:

never forget that he’d broken the most powerful of all the commandments our society imposes, stronger than the commandment not to steal, stronger even than the commandment not to kill. He was a man who had gone against the stream. He had offended, and he had to be plucked out. He had gone against the state, against society, against the establishment, all there was to go against; and a man who has once rebelled in that way has to go on doing so until the very end. There is no other path for him. There is no way back. All he can do, forever and ever, is continue on his perilous voyage, continue his restless journey, and lie down each night with only bamboo grass for a pillow.

To conceive of resisting the state is just as perilous now as it was for Hamada Shokichi in October 1940. The threat of international terrorism is as real—for everyone—as was the threat of German fascism and Japanese militarism in the thirties. And yet it’s difficult to conceive of a dog and pony show like the Democratic National Convention as being anything but part of the problem. Particularly when Jesus is co-opted to sell the message of patriotic self-sacrifice:

To the contrary, says AKMA:

Let’s keep matters clear: Jesus was not about patriotism. If anything, his life and words describe an anti-patriotic critique of national idolatry, and a consistent pacifism.

I’ve never been sympathetic to pacifism—in this entry I argued (against AKMA) that evil can, in some circumstances, only be countered by murderous and coercive violence.

But now, after reading Grass for My Pillow, I find myself inching towards AKMA’s position while wondering about the mechanisms the state uses to control its citizens. Dave Rogers argues—correctly, I believe—that the state monopolizes our attention to such a degree that we have hardly any attention left “to be devoted to the things that might actually make a difference in the world—ourselves.”

We worry about our nation’s debt, while we swim in a sea of personal debt. We fret about our national security, while we drive our cars with one hand holding our cell phones to our ears. We lament the loss of civility in civil discourse, as we tune in to listen to Limbaugh and O’Reilly and Franken. We fact-check the other guy’s ass, while we never critically examine our own cherished beliefs. And who can blame us for these and the many, many other ironic things that might be observed about our existence? We don’t live in a free economy, we live in a command economy. Our attention is commanded by the authorities, and we willingly give it to them, leaving very little for ourselves. As long as they’ve got you worried about taxing your money, you’ll never notice who’s taxing your attention.

Gandhi said, “You must become the change you wish to see in the world.” Those words were, and remain, an enormous threat to the established social structures that seek to prevent real change. But those social structures learned to use the power of technology against the weaknesses of the human psyche. As long as your attention is commanded by external authorities, things will never change. Perhaps that’s part of “the wisdom of the crowd.”

Or, alternately, perhaps the state has learned over time a whole array of strategies that prevent the crowd from developing any wisdom. Such as conferring on some bloggers the privilege of “covering” the Democratic National Convention, allowing them (in the words of the WonderChicken) “inside the chalk borders of the pentagram,” and showering them with “excellent swag.”

“Fairweather bloggers,” writes Halley Suitt, “like a bunch of feminists getting bribed with new appliances and caving in as they are transformed into Stepford Wives. What gives?” The state giveth, and the state taketh away.

I’m hardly immune—for the four days that much of Blogaria was preoccupied with the DNC I’ve spent all my spare time reading Maruya and thinking about Ozu’s films, just as much a vassal of the command economy as anyone else.

So I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know this: it isn’t patriotism.

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour