Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Year is...

WAITING ON A BELGIAN BEACH. The August 15 edition of the Wall Street Journal contained a fascinating essay by Ross Douthat (h/t Kenneth Anderson) asking the question "What year is it? 1938? 1943? 1948? 1972? 1919? Or 1914?" Douthat explains the alternative views thus:

There are five major schools of thought on this question, beginning with the "1942ists," who believe that we stand in Iraq today where the U.S. stood shortly after Pearl Harbor: bogged down against a fascist enemy and duty-bound to carry on the fight to victory. To the 1942ist, Iraq is Europe and the Pacific rolled into one, Saddam and Zarqawi are the Hitlers and Tojos of our era, suicide-bombers are the equivalent of kamikazes -- and George Bush is Churchill, or maybe Truman...

Over the last year, though, many conservatives have been peeling away from '42ism, joining the "1938ists" instead, for whom Iran's march toward nuclear power is the equivalent of Hitler's 1930s brinkmanship. While most '38ists still support the decision to invade Iraq, they increasingly see that struggle as the prelude to a broader regional conflict, and worry that we're engaged in Munich-esque appeasement....

Most of the liberal ex-'42ists have joined up with the "1948ists," who share the '42ist and '38ist view of the war on terror as a major generational challenge, but insist that we should think about it in terms of Cold War-style containment and multilateralism, not Iraq-style pre-emption....

What unites the '48ists, too, is a desire to avoid being tarred as antiwar leftists. This is precisely the position that the "1972ists" embrace. '72ism has few mainstream politicians behind it, but a great many Americans, and it holds that George Bush is Nixon, Iraq is Vietnam, and that any attack on Iran or Syria would be equivalent to bombing Cambodia. Where 1948ists compare themselves to Dean Acheson and Reinhold Niebuhr, '72ists suggest that the greater danger is repression at home and blowback from imperialist ventures abroad....

As 1972ists are to mainstream liberalism, the "1919ists" are to the political right: The old-guard faction that damns its own party's leaders as sellouts to the other side. For '19ists, Mr. Bush is Woodrow Wilson, a feckless idealist bent on sacrificing U.S. interests and global stability on the altar of messianic liberalism...

And... a few voices have spoken up of late for the most disquieting possibility of all. This possibility lacks heroes and villains (Bush/Wilson, Ahmadinejad/Hitler) and obvious lessons (impeach Bush, stay the course in Iraq). But as our crisis deepens, it's worth considering 1914ism, and with it the possibility that all of us, whatever year we think it is, are poised on the edge of an abyss that nobody saw coming.

I have deliberately omitted the instructive analysis Mr. Douthat provided in evaluating the political alliances and enmities created by these worldviews, because I have another alternative to suggest. (The full piece is definitely worth reading, though it does require a subscription to WSJ; however, most of the author's argument is included at the link above.)

I'll be very brief in summarizing why I think all the proposed dates are wrong. It's not 1938 -- particularly in the U.S. -- because the war has already been declared here, like it or not, and hostilities are underway. It's not 1942 because the peoples of the U.S. and its supposed allies may be bogged down, but they are extremely far from being as unified and resolved as they were in 1942. It's not 1948 because we are not embarking on a symmetrical stalemate between two monoliths; rather we have the opposite case of two patchwork alliances fighting an asymmetrical war with a high-tech arsenal on one side and multiplying low-tech atrocities on the other. It's not 1972 because the situation isn't remotely comparable, period. It's not 1919 because the issues we confront are not exclusively diplomatic and strategic; our enemy is very far from being militarily defeated and spiritually exhausted. And it's not 1914 because the unanimous recklessness that characterized that era's principal combatants is absent. Where they were arrogant and belligerent, we are self-doubting and vacillating.

Mr. Douthat also believes that all the analogies fall short and defaults to the reasonable position that the year is -- ta dah! -- 2006, a time unlike any other. In the grand scheme of things, I believe he is right. But from a strictly American perspective, I think there is a useful candidate analogy that comes very close to explaining the absurdities we perceive daily on the world stage.

The year that fits the American political scene is 1939. Chamberlain had already declared war and been swept from office, but France had not yet fallen. This particular interval of World War II was unique enough to have its own name: The Phony War. Here's what Wikipedia tells us about it:

The Phony War (the Phoney War, in Britain), or in Winston Churchill's words the Twilight War, was a phase in early World War II marked by few military operations in Continental Europe, in the months following the German invasion of Poland. Although the great powers of Europe had declared war on one another, neither side had yet committed to launching a significant attack, thus there was relatively little fighting on the ground. The term has equivalents in many other languages, notably the German Sitzkrieg ("sitting war," a pun on Blitzkrieg), the French drôle de guerre ("funny war" or "strange war") and the Polish dziwna wojna ("strange war"). In Britain the period was even referred to as the "Bore War" (a pun on "Boer War").

While most of the German army was fighting against Poland, a much smaller German force manned the fortified defensive lines along the French border (Westwall). At the Maginot Line on the other side of the border, British and French troops stood facing them, but there were only some local skirmishes. The British Royal Air Force dropped propaganda leaflets on Germany and the first Canadian troops stepped ashore in Britain, while western Europe was in a strange calm for seven months. Meanwhile, the opposing nations clashed in the Norwegian Campaign.

Evelyn Waugh wrote one of his best comic novels about this period. Its title is certainly evocative: Put Out More Flags. His characters show us a Britain in which everyone is scrambling to find new roles and opportunities while coping with the still fairly mild restrictions of their New Normal. One of the Amazon reader reviews offers a useful precis of the work:

Like Wodehouse, but with greater subtlety, Waugh finds an underlying silliness in all types of character... In "Put Out More Flags," he...  introduces [his characters] into comic situations within the context of the incipient European war (1939-1940). Foremost among them is Basil Seal, a thirty-six-year-old who is as unemployable as a six-year-old. His mother tries to help him get a prestigious position in the Army, but he blows it when he unintentionally and unknowingly insults the Lieutenant-Colonel of the Bombardiers. Fortunately, he is able to get a job with the War Department where he discovers that the secret to success is to level charges of Communism and Nazism against his (mostly) innocent friends and inform on them.

Basil's friends and family also make the most of war time. Ambrose Silk, a Jewish atheist, takes advantage of his job at the Religious Department of the Ministry of Information to start a fustian periodical. Alastair Trumpington, a pampered aristocrat, dutifully enlists as a soldier because he believes that "he would make as good a target as anyone else for the King's enemies to shoot at," while his wife Sonia waits for him in the car outside the training camp like a mother picking up her kid at school. Meanwhile, Basil's sister Barbara is allowing the use of their country estate as a shelter for poor people evacuating London for fear of German bombing raids; among them are a trio of insufferable brats named the Connollys who provide Basil with the fodder for an irresistible extortion scheme....

The common denominator among all of Waugh's characters in the book is that they have not yet experienced any trauma profound enough to break through their self-absorption. For all of them the impact of the war is still principally personal. In the hilarious first chapter we meet the three women in Basil Seal's life before we meet him. Separately, his mother, his sister, and his mistress all contemplate the fact of war as a solution to the poblem of Basil and reach the same implied conclusion that he should be killed in the war. When we finally meet Basil, he proclaims almost immediately that he wants to be thought of as "one of those men who did well out of the war." He proceeds to do his very best (worst) to achieve that ambition.

In the United States, we are very much in the position of Basil Seal, his family, and their acquaintances, though our Phony War has lasted much longer than theirs. After 9/11, we did indeed put out more flags, learn to deal with some small inconveniences, and tried various stratagems for reconciling our very personal beliefs and ambitions with the unfolding events of  the "War on Terror." Many of our politicians have been as nakedly unscrupulous as Basil in using every twist and turn of circumstance for personal (or party) benefit, while steadfastly refusing to comprehend the gravity of the ordeal to come. Many others have fought their private little war on terror by talking, talking, talking about it, just as Douthat's article illustrates, seeking to force unacceptably harsh reality into the template of their pre-existing ideologies and world views. This is how we can, for temporary political expedience, transform beleaguered and surrounded Israel into an outrageous aggressor who must be prevented at all costs from taking any more steps in their own, and our, long-term interest. This is how 50 percent of our population can see their own government as a greater threat to their safety than the barbarians who are sworn to kill us and have already done so in repulsive ways.

In today's electoral environment, we have Democrats seriously trying to tell us that they are more competent to fight the War on Terror than the President and that they can win it without further loss of military life and no loss of peace-time civil liberties. We have Republicans seriously trying to tell us that we can fight and win the equivalent of World War III without protecting our borders, offending "peace-loving" muslims, or making any effort whatsoever to control domestic pork-barrel spending. Almost all  involved are so busy attacking one another for not putting out enough, or the right kind of, flags that they're willing to pretend our openly malignant enemies are not massing against us every day we delay uniting against them as Americans, regardless of world opinion.

The harsh fact almost everyone refuses to see is that the 6,000-plus Americans who have died since 9/11 -- in the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, Afghanistan, and Iraq -- are insignificant in a nation of 300 million people, no matter how much we talk about them. The real hurt has been confined to a handful of families, while the enormity of the coming price we will all share has not yet sunk in.

If you doubt this analysis, consider all the talk you have heard and read in the mass media and in the blogosphere about the 2006 and 2008 elections as the two parties maneuver to define positions that will tilt power in their direction. The truth is, none of the talk matters. The deciding event that will ultimately end the phony war will occur regardless of who wins in 2006 or 2008. If Republicans retain control of the Congress and/or the Presidency, there will be a catastrophe -- nuclear bombs dropped on Israel or set off in mid-town Manhattan -- that will force all of us to realize that we are in a fight for our lives. The same is true if the Democrats win Congress and/or the Presidency.

On the day that every single American experiences the real prospect of losing absolutely everything they hold dear, the Democrats will have to stop pretending that worldwide anti-semitism is a tolerable nervous tic and that Islamofascism is a law enforcement issue that's been exaggerated into an excuse for keeping them out of power. The Republicans will have to stop pretending that it's possible to win a war against Islamofascists by holding hands with France, Germany, the U.N., Saudi Arabia, and the oligarchs of Mexico. All of us will have to stop pretending that we can control the situation we're in by changing the degree of approval we feel for the commander-in-chief every time a bomb goes off, a grieving mother sobs, a U.N. official remonstrates, a demagogue accuses, a journalist is kidnapped, a blogger whines, an economic indicator wobbles, a storm hits, a Times headline screams, a talking head scoffs, a gas price rises, a general complains, a judge pontificates, a politician rants, or a new poll insists.

The personal, irretrievable losses of loved ones will come. Privations will come, including rationing, real economic hardship, and genuine loss of privacy. The unthinkable will come vividly into the forefront of consciousness, because WMDs actually exist and will get used on friend, family, foe, and even perhaps ourselves.  And then we will look back on this inter-regnum between 9/11 and the new New Normal with a combination of disgust, loathing, remorse, and disbelief.

My prescription. Buy and read your own copy of Put Out More Flags. Laugh at its simple-minded twits while you can. The clock is ticking down and when it hits zero again, our phony war will come to a sudden, sickening end just as Britain's did at Dunkirk.

That's right. Dunkirk. Immediately after that disaster, Britain had to fight on alone against Fortress Europe. They had no time to compute the odds against them and there was no one left to blame anyway. All that remained was war. When we're finally through ignoring the Iranians, that's what will remain for us.

Don't let me disturb your complacency any further.

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