Command and Control

In the Soviet edition of Marxism-Leninism on War and Army published in 1972, a section reads,

Soviet military doctrine proceeds from the assumption that the imperialists are preparing a surprise attack against the USSR and other socialist countries.  At the same time, they consider the possibility of waging military operations escalating into military actions involving the use of nuclear missile weapons.

What struck me about this passage are the assumptions it makes and the consequences of those assumptions.  The Soviets assume we are the imperialists and will strike first. Would we want to forestall such an occurrence and strike first ourselves?  Perhaps we should.  Naturally, we would object to being called the aggressors in the Cold War.  From our perspective the Soviets showed their true colors in the closing days of W.W. II when they kept for themselves territory they took from the Germans.

But, if the Soviets thought that we would strike first, they might consider striking us first to prevent it.  Should we then strike them pre-emptively to prevent the Soviet’s pre-emptive first strike to forestall our first strike?

It all seems like a bizarre vaudeville routine, or one of Shakespeare’s mistaken identity comedies.

Nuclear weapons are of course very real, with extremely real consequences for their use.

And yet, I have always thought that a certain kind of unreality has always existed around nuclear weapons.  Children were told to “duck and cover,” and wrap their necks with newspaper for protection against nuclear attack.  We developed evacuation plans for cities that would never be used, for no such plan could have worked with 15 minutes notice before the bombs hit.  We never wanted to use the weapons, but they only had value if the other side actually believed we would use them, hence Nixon’s “I’m a madman” gambit to try and end the Vietnam war.  Nixon said to H.R. Haldeman in 1969,

I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, “for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button” and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.

Eric Schlosser’s excellent book Command and Control gets at the heart of both the reality and unreality of the existence of  nuclear weapons.

A brief example . . .

The Titan II missile carried a destructive power 3x greater than all the bombs dropped in W.W. II combined . . . including those dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.   But the weapon wasn’t very accurate, and very difficult to keep properly maintained. Still, because these weapons were our most powerful they had potentially significant deterrent value in the Cold War.  So that meant that they needed to be ready to go on a moment’s notice, as their silos would likely be some of the first hit in any massive first strike by the Soviets.

That in turn meant that they needed to be fueled and ready to go at 15 minutes notice, which meant they needed a special kind of fuel, Aerozine -50 .  I can’t imagine a fuel more volatile, as contact with leather, wool, rust, or other average products could cause it to combust.  That made the missiles prone to accidents with potentially horrifying consequences, and one such accident forms the backdrop of the book.

By the 1970’s Henry Kissinger, among others, wanted to make a deal with the Soviets.  We’ll get rid of our Titan II’s, you get rid of your big missiles.  But our Titan II’s were not as good as the Soviet’s comparable missiles, and the Soviets knew this.  No deal.

Kissinger wanted the Titans gone, but no one wanted to decommission them outright.  To take the missiles offline for nothing would show weakness, and lessen the amount of bargaining chips we had the next time we negotiated.

So they stayed.

But if they stayed, they needed to stay operational or it would be the same as giving them away for nothing.  So . . . no one liked the inaccurate, accident-prone, massively powerful weapon, but in the logic of departmental budgets and global politics, their silos stuck around.

As a friend of mine put it, a conspiracy of circumstances made madness look sane.  In a world where the image/symbolic value of nuclear weapons may have meant more than their reality, Kissinger’s stance makes perfect sense.  Indeed, as much as we might like to blame someone for this state of affairs, who would it be?  Even if we step all the way back and blame those that invented the weapons, we must then confront the possibility ca. 1941 that the Nazi’s might be building them, and we might want to get there first.  We all stepped through the looking glass more or less together from the Manhattan Project onwards.

When I first started this book I looked online at “nuclear weapons accidents.” I was utterly dumbfounded.  How could there be so many?  And given these accidents, how did nukes play such a large role in our policy?  This forms the bulk of Schlosser’s work.  Command and Control could have been just a laundry list of one accident after another, and  readers would be mere gawkers on the roadside.  Schlosser makes the book valuable because he looks behind the curtain (with massive amounts of footnotes) to show how the logic of nuclear policy developed.

At the heart of our possession of nuclear weapons lay a dilemma.  On the one hand, the weapons posed great dangers not just to those on whom it might be used, but to those who kept them.  Accidents happen, so naturally we should take great precaution to make sure we don’t have a nuclear accident.  So far well and good.  But the more safety restrictions one put on the weapons, the harder they became to use.  If they became too hard to actually deploy, they had no deterrent value.  If the weapons existed accidents would happen.  But how much effort should we put into preventing accidents if each safety measure made them less valuable as an actual weapon?  And again, if they didn’t function as weapons, deterrence broke down and the world became less safe.

Or so it seemed.

Different aspects of society had different opinions on this.  Scientists stressed safety, the military stressed the efficacy and availability of the weapon.  For example, a congressional committee reviewed security at Minutemen missile sites and found it lacking.  They mandated that access to the missiles be granted only with proper code identification.  The Air Force didn’t like it.  In event of an attack they would need quick access to the missiles, and who could tell who might need access if the normal command structure at the base broke down?  But in the end they complied with the congressional order.

They made the codes for all Minuteman sites 000-000-000.

Having a ready made deterrent also meant that we needed a lot of nukes in the air on planes, especially in the first 20 years or so of the Cold War.   Before we developed rockets and guidance systems the only way to get deliver the weapons was through planes.  The planes had to have the range to stay in the air long enough to get deep inside Soviet airspace.  This meant extensive use of the B-29 bombers, planes with a wobbly safety record.  The record is actually not that wobbly on paper, but we must factor in that these planes had to stay in the air constantly in case of surprise attack by the Russians   So if you expect a mishap once every 10,000 mission hours, that small number adds up quickly.  Every time a plane crashed or caught on fire meant a potential nuclear disaster.  Sometimes bombs got lost, sometimes they exploded, scattering radioactive material.  Sometimes the fact that the nuclear material did not detonate itself may have been a matter of chance.

Can we blame someone for this?  In my opinion, not really.  Accidents happen as part of life, sometimes no matter the precautions, and this means that nuclear accidents may be inevitable.

But there can be no doubt that the logic of the Cold War itself, along with departmental budgets, made accidents more likely.  For example, when various people or agencies raised safety concerns often little got done.  Acquiring new weapons was always preferable to fixing old ones, and this makes sense.  But rarely did older weapons get discarded.  More often than not, Kissinger’s logic mentioned earlier kicked in (of course this went way beyond Kissinger himself).

Yes, the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction no longer form part of the strategic calculus.  But Schlosser points out that the weapons still exist, and we must still deal with them.  To do so we must bring them firmly into reality.

One can’t help but wonder that if things were this bad in the United States, what were they like in Soviet Russia?  What about places like Pakistan today?  Amidst the confusion of alternate reality created by nukes, one things seems clear to me:  the fact that we have yet to blow ourselves up must be evidence that God exists, and that His mercy endures forever.

The Invention of Strategy . . . Sort of

I have written at times about my dislike for the “great man” theory of historical interpretation (here extensively).  My objections to this theory, in brief, are that

  • The writer invariably sees events only through one lens, which limits their vision
  • The writer’s hero worship distorts their vision

I could not resist the Kindle deal of Theodore Dodge’s Hannibal: A History of the Art of War Among the Carthaginians and Romans Down to the Battle of Pydna, 168 B.C., with a Detailed Account of the Second Punic War.  I suspected from some reviews that Dodge would fall prey to the aforementioned hero-worship, the besetting sin of many a 19th century historian.  I happily discovered that while I took issue with some of Dodge’s emphasis and conclusions, he writes an informative and engaging account of the Punic War era.  His is a much better book than Druesel’s Bismarck biography linked above, for example.  Likely Dodge was simply a more sane and intellectually honest person than Druesel.  Or it may be that Dodge’s more practical American sensibility and his own experience in our Civil War gave him better perspective.  Whatever the reason, his book pleasantly surprised me.  He delves into some hero worship, but keeps it to acceptable levels.

Dodge first argues briefly that Hannibal, with some help from Alexander the Great, invented the art of military strategy.  This at first struck me as “hero worship” but upon reflection I mostly agree with him.  For the ancients, battle was battle in the way for us that a handshake is a handshake.  We don’t think of strategizing a handshake.  Handshakes represent our pledge, ourselves.  To strategize a handshake seems impersonal, disconnecting us from ourselves and putting up a false pretense.

For the ancients, in battle you lined up in a field and fought.  Battle tested not the intellect but the will, the discipline, and the courage of the armies.  To have it become something more than that struck many as absurd, or perhaps cheating.  Certainly some Romans viewed Hannibal this way.  Some of our generals in Vietnam felt similarly.  I recall one of them saying, “To *&^% with them!  They wouldn’t come out and fight!”  So the attitude may have a universality beyond the ancient world.

Hannibal often fought with deception, move, and counter-move.  At times he sacrificed a small portion of his men in hopes that Rome would bite on a bait-and-switch.  He always seemed to have several tools in his bag to try and get what he wanted.  I wondered with a colleague of mine how this came to be.  What context helped create Hannibal?  Major shifts like this do not happen in a vacuum.

Carthage had a great naval tradition, but little overt military tradition to speak of.  A society centered around merchants, they contracted out nearly the entirety of their infantry.  An army with dozens of different traditions is an army with no traditions.  Dodge does a solid job of explaining the jigsaw puzzle that was the Carthaginian army, which would need a charismatic and forceful leader to hold together, let alone use effectively.  Hannibal deserves much of the credit he receives.

Hannibal also spent the majority of his life away from Carthage in Spain with the army, including his formative years.  Thus, Hannibal had little connection to Carthaginian civilization (something that would hurt him later in his war with Rome).  He roamed as a “free agent” in many respects, and could be dedicated to victory while others dedicated themselves to honor or tradition.

Many of Hannibal’s admirers rightly point out that unlike Alexander, Caesar, or Napoleon Hannibal faced  rather than actually had the best army in the known world.  True, Rome’s infantry distinguished itself for an almost 200 year unbroken string of victories by the time Hannibal invaded.  But for someone like Hannibal Rome offered unique opportunities.  Unlike Carthage, their army was embedded directly within their civilization of farmers.  And, like farmers, Rome’s army stuck to routine.  They could be counted on to charge at any red flag in any environment, and a patient commander with excellent command over his men might find a way to exploit this.  Certainly Hannibal did, with Cannae as the exemplar par excellence of his theatrical genius.

In the end, however, Dodge reverts to the hero-worship mentality.  The “objective” view (ok — my view) of Hannibal makes him a bit too clever by half.  The 2nd Punic War ostensibly began as a dispute over territory in Spain.  Had Hannibal stayed in Spain and waited for Rome to come to him, he would have been well supplied and could pick his spots more or less at will.  One can easily foresee a significant victory for Carthage in that scenario.  But Hannibal chose to play for much bigger and riskier stakes by invading Italy itself.  Any full treatment of the 2nd Punic War then, must be largely a biography of Hannibal.  Understanding what made him tick would make a great template for a great writer, but Dodge is not it.  Granted, Dodge never claimed to write a Hannibal biography, but I don’t see how one can ignore this side of Hannibal in writing about the war.  For example, in faithful hero-worship fashion, Dodge brushes off the many cruel acts of Hannibal and never uses them to try and gain insight into the man.  When Hannibal makes two prisoners fight each other to the death for their freedom merely as an object lesson for his men, all Dodge can say is, “This had a remarkable effect on his army.”

Essentially, Hannibal’s strategy boiled down to:

  • Crossing the Alps to invade Italy — this would surprise Rome and put him in a position to quickly ally himself with the Gauls in the north of Italy, long time enemies of Rome, then
  • March south and hope to gather more allies as he went — to do this he would need a few big battles to impress/scare the locals
  • Eventually he would have enough troops to march on Rome itself

I think Hannibal a great military commander, but we have to remember that he lost.  It’s easy to love Lee, but Grant beat him.  Napoleon is more interesting than Wellington, but Wellington had the last laugh.  So if we avoid getting carried away with the brilliant nature of some of Hannibal’s victories, we may wonder how great a grand strategist Hannibal really was.  His plan had significant flaws.

Many point out that Hannibal got very little support from Carthage itself, and then argue that had he had this support, he would have been victorious.  Dodge writes,

That Hannibal eventually failed was not from lack of intelligent policy, but because he had no aid from home. . .

and again,

The opposition of Hanno [a Carthaginian politician] wrecked all of Hannibal’s wonderful work.

and later again,

When we look at the [internal condition of Carthaginian politics], it ceases to be a matter of curiosity why so little was done to aid Hannibal.

It is a mark of faith in the “great men” school of thought that nothing can ever be really the fault of the great man.

True, Hannibal received little support from Carthage, but Hannibal should have been quite familiar with the topsy-turvy nature of his home civilization’s politics.  Besides, in crossing the Alps Hannibal adopted a strategy that would isolate him from any kind of supply line.  Finally, and most tellingly for me, even Dodge admits that Carthaginian armies had a tradition of operating independently and self-sufficiently apart from Carthage’s government.  All this Hannibal should have taken into account, and it was a serious mistake for him not to connect his strategy to his political situation.  Again, even Dodge himself writes about the Carthaginian government,

. . . it was natural that [the Carthaginian government] should prefer to hold Spain to winning in Italy.  They believed they could do the first, they doubted the other.

So Hannibal adopted a strategy (rather than hold Spain, go for the jugular in Italy) that he either knew or should have known went in direct opposition to Carthage’s political leadership.  Carthage refused to take extra risks for a general that had defied them, and this should not surprise us, nor should it have surprised Hannibal.  It seems to have surprised Dodge.

For Hannibal’s strategy to work, he would need to pry allies away from Rome.  But in cutting his army off from a supply line, he forced them to rely on foraging the countryside, alienating the very people he tried to win over.  Oil and water just don’t mix.

Besides this, I think Hannibal also showed a basic ignorance of Rome’s alliance system.  Rome wasn’t perfect.  No one is.  But in general Rome offered a good deal to those they conquered and incorporated into their Republic.  They required taxes and military service, and little else.  How could Hannibal top this?  What better offer could he make?  He could, of course, exempt them from military service, but then their “help” would not be much help at all.

I think Hannibal failed to understand the political system his enemy really operated, and by my tally that means he failed to understand politics at all.  A general who operated on Hannibal’s scale needed to, and this failure cost him everything.  Dodge writes,

Like Napoleon, Hannibal saw that a peace, to be a peace, must be conquered at the doors of the enemy’s capital.  This was his policy.  It was the proper one; but it failed because he could not control the resources of Carthage.

That Dodge writes this without attaching any blame to Hannibal speaks volumes.  Why should we praise a man who undertook a strategy that required he control Carthage’s resources when Hannibal lacked the power to control them?  And why be so sure that Napoleon was correct when he too lost, and lost badly?

Those in the romantic “Great Men” school ultimately have to explain why their heroes lost (losers are always more romantic than winners).  For R.E. Lee, it was his generals.  “If only Jackson had lived, or Ewell had taken the hill, or if Stuart were there, etc. (Lee of course only blamed himself).  Napoleon, serving as his own “Great Men” autobiographer, and perhaps the founder of the “Great Men” school, blamed fate.  For him, I think, to blame others would have meant admitting that others had real power, which perhaps he hesitated to do.  Alas, Dodge (though thankfully not Hannibal) takes refuge behind Fate as well, writing,

Hannibal . . . was hoping against hope; he recognized that the stars in their courses were fighting against him.

and,

[Alexander the Great] was a prime favorite of Fortune.  She smiled on Hannibal until after Cannae.  Thereafter no man ever faced luck so contrary.

Fate is a refuge for those who refuse to face the message Reality wishes to convey.

In the end, the traditional story of the 2nd Punic War as a war of personal revenge of Hannibal on Rome may make the most sense.   The strategy employed, the blitzkrieg nature of his execution, and his “anger” flaming out after Cannae may speak to the truth of this version.

So, I disagree with Dodge, but I enjoyed his book, and others will too.  At least he had an opinion to go with his fine writing and interesting way of presenting Rome and Hannibal’s epic confrontation.  Though Rome had the last laugh, Hannibal remains a fascinating figure.

Though see here for the possibility that Hannibal had the last, last laugh after all.

 

 

 

 

“Our danger is that we win all the battles except the last one.”

Despite a mountain of documentary evidence that survived the war in Germany, the Nuremberg trial prosecutors had a difficult time establishing the guilt of some defendants.  Many of the top Nazi leaders had already died, and many of the accused found it quite convenient to blame things on those who could no longer answer.   What they knew and when they knew it, and where their responsibility lay was not always easy to ascertain.

Acclaimed military writer Basil Liddell Hart scored a great coup by getting several top German Unknowncommanders in W.W. II to talk to him about their war experience.  It proved all to easy for the generals to ascribe whatever success they had to themselves, and their failure to Hitler.  As Hart notes in his prologue, this means it’s hard to know how reliable Hart’s generals can be.

Still, Hart’s The German Generals Talk succeeds on many levels.  While exact particulars remain cloudy in some cases, a definite overall picture emerges. Among other things, the paradigm the generals created (and we also tend to create) in regard to Hitler and the military needs tweaking, at least in some instances.

For example, we think of Hitler as a megalomaniac bent on conquest at all costs.  But how to explain, then, Hitler’s attitude towards Britain?  Hart shows that at least in the minds of the generals, Hitler wanted to back off of Britain.  At Dunkirk the generals thought that Hitler wanted the British to get away.  With Operation Sea Lion, generals complained that Hitler barely involved himself in the planning and seemed to care little for the details. He seemed almost relieved to break it off in its infant stages.

In truth, Hitler had always admired the British.  He praised them in Mein Kampf, which fit his racial view of the world.  The British, after all, had largely German and Nordic stock and thus were not Germany’s “natural” enemies.  Apparently Hitler believed that in allowing the British to save their honor at Dunkirk, they would more prone to accept a peace settlement.  Like Kaiser Wilhelm II, he implicitly thought that Germany and England were friends deep down.  Hitler’s egocentrism led to him to believe that everyone thought as he did.  All of us share this characteristic to some extent, but in Hitler it grew far out of proportion.  In this rare instance, his race theories actually made him less aggressive, and in this case, this instinct proved disastrous for Germany, a double irony.

Hart shows how the army never really trusted or liked Hitler.  Every general interviewed sought to distance himself from Hitler in some way. But then this begs the question as to why very few military leaders stood up to Hitler, let alone actively tried to change the situation.  They explained their situation this way:

  • While many of the upper level officers might have gone against Hitler, their troops would not have.  Those from Major on down had been raised with the Nazi system and had much more loyalty to it.  Many officers doubted whether or not their troops would have followed them in rebellion.
  • The army had an ensconced officer corp with traditions that survived W.W. I.  But the Air Force and navies did not.  Many army officers believed these branches were comprised almost entirely of pro-Hitler sympathizers, as both owed their very existence to the Nazi regime.  Even if the army as a unit rebelled, the Air Force and Navy would not.

Hart offers little comment on this line of defense.  It has merit, and it touches on a larger question.  For democracy to thrive the army must be apolitical.  Is the Nazi army any different?  When do we want the army suddenly to get a conscience?  Commenting on on our military’s experience in Vietnam, one general stated that, “To argue that officers should be guided primarily by their conscience is to argue for military dictatorship.”  But of course we don’t want soldiers, or any human being, to reduce themselves to be a mere robotic arm of the state.

Interestingly the generals’ objections to Hitler had everything to do with Hitler’s military policies and nothing about the morality of the Nazi regime. Nowhere in this 300 page book is the Holocaust even mentioned, let alone the “killing groups” on the eastern front.  Maybe this has something to do with exactly who Hart interviewed, but I think it has more to do with the strict stratification of Nazi society, and the technocratic nature of their military education.  In the end, neither of these things can explain away their ultimate failure to act in any significant way.  None of them went nearly as far as Adolph Eichmann’s ridiculous assertion that, “I only transported people to the concentration camps.  I never actually killed anyone!” but they show the same tendency, albeit to a much lesser degree.

This point touches on how the generals conducted the war.  While Hart (a military man himself) often sympathizes with the military’s side of the story, he points out that the generals lacked strategic imagination.  At least at certain points and times, Hart shows how Hitler had greater grand strategic insight.  Hitler and his generals often clashed.  They had profound class differences.  The Prussian aristocracy surely resented the social mixing engendered by the Nazi regime.  But Hart shows that the differences between them also had roots in their personalities and training.  Hitler’s poetic mind gave him a potentially greater field of vision than his technocratic generals.

But this “greater field of vision” needs moral and “physical” roots.   Art has no merit for its own sake. Hitler often preferred the great, memorable, and perhaps imaginary deed to mundane reality.  If he were to win the war, it would have to be on his aesthetic terms.  So he ordered what in his mind were “gallant last stands” that really condemned his troops to slaughter.  The “Battle of the Bulge” had no real possibility of success due to lack of air support and supplies, but it would be so much more heroic than waiting behind fortified positions behind the Rhine.   Hitler seemed to live more fully in the world of Wagner’s operas than reality.

Hitler may have had at times greater strategic insight than his generals.  But this distance from reality made it so that he could never bother with mundane details.  As far as children are concerned, meat comes from the grocery store, and water comes from the faucet.  Hitler never either could or would take logistics like supplies into account.  That is why Germany could fall prey so quickly to “imperial overstretch.”  General Halder warned Hitler that, “Our danger is that we win all the battles except the last one,” and this proved prophetic in Africa, Russia, and even Europe.  Like Hannibal and Napoleon before him, Hitler forgot the need for political as well as military conquests.

It would be more satisfying for us if Hitler had a moment of self-revelation at his end.  But like many other Nazi leaders who took their own life, no such moment came.  Hitler never wavered from playing his part.  As various Nazi functionaries urged Hitler to flee Berlin, apparently it was Albert Speer who countered their advice by telling Hitler, “You must be on stage when the curtain falls.”  Speer knew that the best way to motivate Hitler was to play to his sense of theater.  Perhaps he wanted Hitler’s demise as much as some of the generals did.

Dave

Ordinary Men

If you have driven much at all in any urban or suburban area, I’m guessing that you have experienced something like the following:

You are at a stoplight in a busy intersection, waiting to turn left.  You are towards the back of the line but have a hope of making the light, which usually lets several cars through.  By the intersection a person in need stands with a sign asking for money.

You have a few dollars and would gladly give it, but you are towards the back of the line before the man in need reaches your car.  The cars start to inch forward, anxious to make the light.  You have two choices:

  • Stop your car and give the man some money.  This would reasonably take 10 seconds of time, especially if you wanted to look him in the eye and address him as a person.  But this means that you might not make the light.  For sure, it means that cars behind you would not make the light and the intersection would pile up, with a rubberneck ensuing that would take perhaps three light cycles to clear out.
  • Go through the light and not stop, keeping up with the flow of traffic.

If you are like me in the situation I described, you have taken option 2 more often than you might care to admit.

Why does this happen?  Why does this feel like a no-win situation?  Why do we feel such tremendous pressure to get through the intersection as quickly as possible?

Aside from general answers to the question involving the human condition, we need to consider the specific situation.  When driving you enter into an unspoken covenant with other drivers that share your immediate space. When on the road other drivers–and not the rest of mankind–become your primary obligation  One part of this covenant involves being alert at intersections.  We all want to get to our destination.  Don’t be on your phone and miss the light change.  Be ready to go.  This isn’t about selfishness but courtesy to others.  Your primary and immediate obligation to other drivers overrides secondary obligations, even those of greater moral weight.  When you are behind the wheel, your fellow drivers, for example, get preference over the poor of the third world.

Sure, we don’t want honked at.  But we also don’t want to break the covenant with our momentary “brothers” behind the wheel.

Reading Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men brought this everyday situation into starker light.  Browning focuses not on Nazi ideology, nor the ideologically committed SS thugs.  Rather, he focuses on one particular reserve police battalion and the evolution of most of them into mass murderers.  We would like to believe that Nazi’s committed mass murder because they had a previous commitment to racial genocide.  The war simply gave them the opportunity to enact their beliefs.  This would be safer for us because we do not have a belief that we should mass murder in a racially motivated way.  Thus, we would not slaughter Jews. But Browning points out that, while beliefs played a role, what seemed more decisive was the particular situation the men faced.  Their actions transformed them over time into mass murderers, not their beliefs.  Indeed for many, their actions transformed their beliefs, and not vice-versa.

This means that no one is immune.  Our beliefs–what we hold true in our heads–won’t save us.

Those that comprised Reserve Police Battalions shared the following general characteristics:

  • They were middle-aged men with other careers apart from the war.  All of them came of age before the Nazi’s took power.
  • Most all of them had membership in the Nazi party, but most all of those had joined late, and one expects, rather as a matter of course.
  • Reserve police battalions were held in general contempt by the SS rank and file as lacking true commitment to the Nazi cause.
  • Perhaps most surprisingly, very few expressed overt agreement with Nazi beliefs about Jews.  Some of them even expressed specific disagreements with anti-semitic beliefs.
  • Nearly all of them had blood on their hands in one form or another.

As the Nazi’s occupied much of Eastern Europe by 1942 they sought to clear the area of Jews and other communist partisans–but most particularly Jews were the target.  Himmler and Heydrich would much rather have had the SS do the work of mass killing, but the army at that time fought desperately in Russia and could not spare the men.  Hence, the calling up of reserve police battalions for this job.

The Nazi’s were smart in how they managed these men.  The first job for the battalion involved murdering thousands of Jews point blank in a Polish town called Jozefow, but the officers kept this order secret right up until zero hour. They let bits of information trickle out slowly, none of it objectionable by itself, i.e., “report to place x,” “prepare to help keep order,” and so on.  In relaying the mass-murder order to his men, the major of Battalion 101 showed visible distress.  He broke down almost in tears, he expressed disagreement with the order, and even gave anyone the option of abstaining themselves from this action.

But he did give the order.

At this point what options do these men have?

  • If you have strong moral scruples, you have no time to organize any resistance.  But even if you wanted to resist, will you fire on your comrades, men with whom you have trained and share a bond, to prevent such a crime?
  • If the battalion refuses to carry out the order, what will the SS do to you?
  • You could take your commander’s offer and refuse to fire on the Jews and be given guard duty.  Does being on guard duty absolve you?
  • Perhaps most significantly, soldiering tells you that if you don’t do the job, someone else will have extra work.  The army runs on the principle of all for one, one for all.  Your “weakness” means that others have harder jobs and more work.  No one wants to put their fellows in such a position.  The institutional pressure not to shirk your duty and obey orders must have been enormous.

Browning wants us to face the truth that most of us would obey the order. Most of us would shoot Jews, and most of us would find the means to rationalize it.  Testimonies given years later reveal that nearly all of them found a way to make peace with this atrocity in different ways, such as:

  • War is terrible and cannot be redeemed. Besides the enemy bombs our own women and children.
  • Surely this is an isolated, one-time action.  It is horrible that we have this assignment.  But given the horrible nature of this job, these Jews must therefore be particularly dangerous.  Best to just “rip off the band-aid.”
  • Some stood in line and fired, but deliberately missed.  Perhaps they trusted that their fellow soldiers would not deliberately miss, and this will preserve them from the horror in some way.  Indeed, mop-up crews with sub-machine guns came through to finish the job.  So . . . some tried to technically not kill anyone.
  • One soldier even went so far as to say that (paraphrasing), “I paired up with someone who had no problem shooting the women, and then I would shoot the children.  I could not shoot mothers, but I figured, once their mother was dead, I could shoot the children as an act of mercy to them.  Their lives without their parents would be misery.  I could free them from suffering.”

Those that did not join in bore the stigma of cowards and shirkers.  Those that attempted to obey, but found that “their nerves” could not handle it, were viewed as those who “tried their best.”  Even Himmler himself said in 1943, that while firm obedience stood as the pinnacle of virtue, exceptions came to those whose “nerves are shot, to one who is finished, who has become weak.  Then one can say: Good, go take your pension.”  Even a small amount participation guaranteed your personal safety, no doubt a strong impetus to at least do something in a token way.

After Jozefow many men got violently ill and many showed acute emotional distress.  We might think that this rebellion of the body as a witness to moral truth would turn the tide and what happened would never happen again.  In fact, many men who openly wept and got terribly ill after the Josefow massacre later became hardened and even enthusiastic killers of more Jews.  Initially, the body rebelled against the mind, but eventually, with enough practice, the two worked in tandem.  Eventually, the SS could trust the battalion to commit larger and larger massacres:

The Numbers of Those Murdered by Battalion 101 in

1942: 7-8,000 (minimum)

1943: 30,000 (minimum)

In between their assignments to mass-murder, Battalion 101 received orders to clear the forests of Jews who had fled Nazi roundups.  These “Jew-hunts” (as they were known) could also be rationalized:

  • The main enemy of fascism is communism.  Many Jews are communists (so went the party line), thus, they are a threat.
  • Some of these Jews who fled now have arms.  They will likely engage in guerrilla operations against our forces.  Thus, they are not civilians but enemy soldiers, enemies too cowardly to come out and fight.  They deserve their fate.

Perhaps because one might possibly find even the thinnest “legitimate” military motive for such action explains why the battalion never had a shortage of volunteers for these missions.  It far more resembled “real soldiering” and may have helped them justify their actions in military terms.  Such missions made them soldiers in their minds, not murderers.

Ordinary Men demonstrates that one need not be an SS ideologue to commit such atrocities.  The commitment to your immediate circle of fellow men, your desire to “do something” for the war, your general patriotism, and perhaps even a lingering sense of guilt that in serving in the reserve police battalions made one a whole lot safer than a front-line solider–thus you might seek to make up for it with brutal deeds– all combine to wreak moral havoc on your soul.  Within a year normal middle-age men without overt Nazi sympathies, without being educated in Nazi ideology in their formative years, without defined anti-semitic beliefs, became butchers on an unreal scale.*

We can understand this if we remember the intersection with the man asking for money.

I think the main reason why we fail at the intersection is the competition between our two commitments, one to our fellow drivers, the other to the needy man.  Throw in the side-car of our selfishness and desire to get home and not be inconvenienced, etc., and game/set/match for our values.  The only way to really navigate this successfully is to park the car and approach him on foot.  In one sense this is harder, because it costs us more in time.  But in many ways this is the easier path, for now we need not worry about the drivers behind us at all.  We have removed ourselves from obligations to them and can act much more freely.

Of course the men in Battalion 101 faced a drastically more difficult situation.  You cannot escape blame by opting out of shooting and taking guard duty instead.  Reasonably, you would not (and perhaps even should not?) turn your gun against your comrades and go out in a hail of bullets.  The only thing you can do is remove your uniform, perhaps facing court martial and even death.  Perhaps you could do this if you were a bachelor, but if you have a wife and kids . . . ?  What happens to them?  Can you sacrifice them in addition to yourself? How many of us would shoot?  How many of us would take guard duty?

In the epilogue, Browning quotes from Primo Levi’s book, The Drowned and the Saved, and it seems a fitting way to close. In his book Levi argues passionately that,

It is naive, absurd, and historically false to believe that an infernal system such as National Socialism sanctifies its victims; on the contrary, it degrades them, it makes them resemble itself.

Such was the fate of Reserve Police Battalion 101.

Dave

*Browning also traces the evolution of their anti-semitism.  In time many came to hold the same kinds of beliefs about the Jews as Hitler and Himmler.  They didn’t start that way, but their actions formed their beliefs.

The Psychology of Encounters

As an author A.J. Toynbee could be controversial and intimidating.  His grand theories of the scope of history naturally had adherents and skeptics.  Toynbee repeated himself numerous times over the scope of his 12 volume magnum opus.  At times too, Toynbee’s “insights” seem like little more than average common sense, such as his observation that geography must present a challenge to encourage the development of a civilization.

But sometimes his insights, even if not earth-shattering, are nonetheless important to contemplate, and show their worth because of their applicability in different circumstances.  I have always thought that the book The World and the West a great entry point for those interested in Toynbee’s work.  My favorite chapter (the book is a collection of speeches given on a theme) is “The Psychology of Encounters” (available here for those interested).

His main point deals with how cultures interact with one another.  One of his arguments entails showing how when a culture gets transplanted into “non-native” soil, it may not “take” in the way it did so where originally planted.  He uses the rise of nationalism from the mid 19th-early 20th centuries.  The idea of nationalism grew up slowly and organically in England and France, and perhaps to a lesser extent in Russia.  But the exportation of this idea to other areas could have unintended and dangerous consequences.  I quote at length,

We can see why the same institution has had these strikingly different effects in these two different social environments. The institution of ‘national states’ has been comparatively harmless in western Europe for the same reason that accounts for its having originated there; and that is because, in western Europe, it corresponds to the local relation between the distribution of languages and the alignment of political frontiers. In western Europe, people speaking the same language happen, in most cases, to be huddled together in a single continuous and compact block of territory with a fairly well defined boundary separating it from the similarly compact domains of other languages; and, in a region where, as here, the languages are thus distributed in the pattern of a patchwork quilt, the language map provides a convenient basis for the political map, and ‘national states’ are therefore natural products of the social milieu. Most of the domains of the historic states of Western Europe do, in fact, coincide approximately with homogeneous patches of the language map; and this coincidence has come about, for the most part, undesignedly. The west European peoples have not been acutely conscious of the process by which their political containers have been moulded on linguistic lasts; and, accordingly, the spirit of nationalism has been, on the whole, easy-going in its west European homeland. In west European national states, linguistic minorities who have found themselves on the wrong side of a political frontier have in most cases shown loyalty, and been treated with consideration, because their coexistence with the majority speaking ‘the national language’ as fellow-citizens of the same commonwealth has been a historical fact which has therefore been taken for granted by everyone.

But now consider what has happened when this west European institution of ‘national states’, which in its birthplace has been a natural product of the local linguistic map, has been radiated abroad into regions in which the local language map is On a quite different pattern. When we look at a language map, not just of Western Europe, but of the world, we see that the local west European pattern, in which the languages are distributed in fairly clear-cut, compact, and homogeneous blocks, is something rather peculiar and exceptional. In the vastly larger area stretching south-eastward from Danzig and Trieste to Calcutta and Singapore, the pattern of the language map is not like a patchwork quilt; it is like a shot-silk robe. In eastern Europe, south-west Asia, India, and Malaya the speakers of different languages are not neatly sorted out from one another, as they are in western Europe; they are geographically intermingled in alternate houses on the same streets of the same towns and villages; and, in this different, and more normal, social setting, the language map—in which the threads of different colours are interwoven with each other—provides a convenient basis, not for the drawing of frontiers between states, but for the allocation of occupations and trades among individuals.

I thought of Toynbee’s insight when reading Ivan Morris’ excellent The Nobility of Failure.  In his book Morris examines the idea of the Japanese hero through mythology, folklore, and history.  By comparing various stories over two millennia a consistent picture emerges.

  • The hero must be sincerely dedicated and have a purity of devotion.
  • Japanese heroes often dedicate themselves to hopeless, or nearly hopeless causes.  The fact that the cause is relatively hopeless demonstrates his purity and sincerity.  That is, the cause itself is not particularly important — rather, the character of the hero takes center stage.
  • The Japanese hero invariably ends his life in a noble death, one that he himself controls and determines.  This death validates the purity of his cause.  We might assume that the method was always sepiku, the ritual disembowlment.  Not so, Morris explains.  Originally, ritual suicide was performed by slicing the carotid artery on the neck.  Sepiku probably became part of the samurai tradition because it is a much more painful form of death, one that allows for a greater demonstration of suffering and courage.

The last chapter naturally deals with the kamikaze attacks at the end of W.W. II.  Previous to W. W. II heroic status could only be attained by the aristocratic class & samurai class.  But Toynbee’s theory of the unpredictability of cultural transference applies in this case.  This transference on a cultural level can have the same kind of unpredictable detrimental effect as it can on the ecological level.  Think of the kudzu plant, which serves a good purpose in Japan’s unusual geography.  Transplant it to the southeastern U.S., however, and it will take over entire forests. Beginning in the mid-19th century Japan got exposed to western ideology, including obviously the idea of equality.  But what equality meant for Japan in this case became a horrifying kind of parody — now everyone can kill themselves and attain heroic status.

Hence the kamikaze pilots.  As Morris points out, the Japanese did not carry out these attacks primarily because they believed it would lead to victory.  No one really believed in victory by the end of 1944.  Such attacks, however, would certainly lead to the pilots achieving hero status in Japan.  They mimicked almost exactly the form and pattern laid down in Japan’s past.

Below I include various excerpts from Morris’ book.  Another quote from Toynbee illustrates the tragedy of Japan in W.W. II.

Since our discovery of the trick of splitting the atom, we have learned to our cost that the particles composing an atom of some inoffensive element cease to be innocuous and become dangerously corrosive so soon as they have been split off from the orderly society of particles of which an atom is constituted, and have been sent flying by themselves on independent careers of their own.

Excerpts from The Nobility of Failure

Testimonies of Kamikaze Pilots, 1944-45

If only we might fall

Like cherry blossoms in the Spring —

So pure and radiant!

  • Haiku by a kamikaze pilot in the ‘Seven Lives’ Unit, died Feb. 22, 1945, age 22. Kamikaze planes were called “Oka” bombs.  “Oka” is the Japanese word for “Cherry Blossom.”

“The purity of youth will issue in the divine wind.” [i.e., the “shimpu,” or “kamikaze.”]

  • Admiral Onishi, the probable originator of the “kamikaze” attacks.   He said to his officers, “Even if we are defeated, the noble spirit of the kamikaze attack corp will keep our homeland from ruin.  Without this spirit, ruin would surely follow defeat.  [The pilots] are already gods, without earthly desires.”

Beckoned to a chair, the young man [Lt. Seki] sat down facing us.  Commander Tamai patted him on the shoulder.  “Seki, Admiral Onishi himself has visited the 201st air group to present a plan of the greatest importance to Japan.  The plan is to crash-dive our Zero fighters, loaded with 250 kilogram bombs, into the ships of the enemy.  You are being considered to lead such an attack.  How do you feel about it?

There were tears in Tamai’s eyes as he spoke.

For a moment there was no answer.  Seki sat motionless, eyes closed, in deep thought.  Then calmly, raising his head, he said, “You absolutely must let me do it.”  There was not the slightest falter in his voice.

  • Lt. Seki was the first to lead a kamikaze squadron, and he successfully sank an escort carrier.

When it was clear that they understood my message [about forming a kamikaze squadron], I turned and said, “Anyone who wishes to volunteer for today’s sortie will raise his hand.”

The words were hardly spoken before every man raised his hand.  Several of them left their seats and pressed up against me, pleading, “Send me!  Please send me!”

I wheeled about and shouted, “Everyone wants to go.  Don’t be so selfish!”

[As the planes moved to the runway for takeoff] Lt. Nakano raised himself in the cockpit and shouted, “Commander Nakajima!”

Fearing that I had done something wrong I rushed over.  His face was wreathed in smiles as he called, “Thank you Commander!  Thank you very much for choosing me!”  I flagged him on with a vigorous wave of my arm, and other pilots shouted the same thing.  “Thank you!” they shouted.  I pretended not to hear these words, but they tore at my heart.

  • Official log of Capt. Nakajima

It is of no avail to express it now, but  in my 23 years of life I have worked out my own philosophy.  It leaves a bad taste in my mouth when I think of the deceits of the wily politicians upon the innocent population.  But I am willing to take orders from the high-command . . . because I believe in the beautiful polity of Japan.  

The Japanese way of life is indeed beautiful, and I am proud of it, as I am of Japanese history and mythology, which reflect the purity of our ancestors and our past.   And the living embodiment of all wonderful things in our past is the Imperial Family which, too, is the crystallization of the splendour and beauty of Japan and its people.  It is an honor to give my life for such beautiful and lofty things.

  • Last letter of Lt. Yamaguchi Teruo

Dear Parents:

Please congratulate me.  I have been given a splendid opportunity to die.  This destiny of our homeland hinges on the decisive battle in the seas to the south where I shall fall like a blossom from a radiant cherry tree.

How I appreciate this chance to die like a man!  . . . Thank you, my parents, for the years during which you have cared for me and inspired me.  I hope that in some small way this deed will repay you for what you have done.

  • From the last letter of Lt. Matsuo Isao

Never think of winning!

Thoughts of victory will only bring defeat.

When we lose, let us press forward, ever forward!

  • A popular kamikaze song

Cease your optimism,

Open your eyes,

People of Japan!

Japan is bound to be defeated.

It is then that we Japanese

Muse infuse into this land

A new life

A new road to restoration

Will be ours* to carve.

  • Last poem of a kamikaze pilot.  The “ours*” refers to the kamikaze pilots, whose death will plant the seeds of “new life.”

If by some strange chance, Japan should suddenly win this war, it would be a fatal misfortune for the future of the nation.  It will be better for our nation and people if they are tempered through real ordeals, which will serve to strengthen.

  • Sub. Lt. Okabe [?]

Listen carefully!  Imagine you have nothing in your hand but a pebble, and you need to take down a tree.  What is the best method?  To throw the pebble, or to take the pebble in your hand and strike it against the tree yourself?

  • Lt. Nagatsuka, last message to his parents.

Probably the most fearsome of all scenes took place on Saipan in 1944.  When organized military resistance became impossible soldiers  — some 3000 of them — armed with nothing but sticks came charging at the American concentrated machine-gun fire.   They were mowed down to the last man.   A particularly macabre note was provided by wounded Japanese soldiers who limped forward, bandages and all, to the slaughter.

Subsequently, entire units of Japanese soldiers knelt down in rows to be decapitated by their commanders, who then in turn committed ritual suicide.  Hundreds of others shot themselves in the head or, more commonly, exploded themselves with hand grenades.  As the marines advanced through the island they witnessed one mass suicide after another, culminating in the last terrible scene when Japanese civilians, including large numbers of women with children in their arms, hurled themselves off cliffs or rushed out into the sea to drown rather than risk capture.  

  • From Ivan Morris’ The Nobility of Failure

The Blind Swordsman

Some years ago I watched the movie The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi and enjoyed it, though it did not match my expectations.  I watch martial arts movies from time to time, but usually not for the plot or character development.  As a kid, I watched any movie I could with big explosions.  Now I am a sucker for the balletic action common in many great kung-fu movies from the east.

Certainly the movie has its share of sword fights, but the style of fighting surprised me, ignorant as I was (and am) of Japanese fighting styles.  I expected long, drawn out battles.  In fact, the fights lasted mere seconds as the combatants focused on short, intense stabs.  Towards the end of the movie the best swordsman of the bad guys and Zatoichi face off alone.  “Ah, here we go,” I thought.  No . . . this was the shortest fight of all, consisting of each man doing only one move.

I thought of this movie reading Japanese Destroyer Captain* by Captain Temeichi Hara of the Japanese Imperial navy.  During W.W. II his record made him Japan’s best captain of destroyers, if not one of their top captains in the whole navy.  Much of his memoir reads like I suppose an American or British naval man would recount the war.  I hoped also to glean something of the culture of Japan that would help illumine the war beyond the narrow confines Hara discusses.

Captain Hara avoids using too much military jargon.  At times I had to strain to understand the battles he describes, but usually not.  He writes openly without any obvious agenda.  He has criticism and praise alike for certain American actions, and even sharply criticizes certain member of Japanese high command (I believe he was the first to do so after the war).

I mentioned The Blind Swordsman because the whole atmosphere of Hara’s account has its roots in samurai lore.  Hara often references maxim’s from different literature and famous swordsmen, but he seems to do more than just quote them.  He gives evidence of living inside of them.  His grandfather actually was a samurai and he speaks at the beginning of the book of his deep connection with his grandfather.  He obviously sought to live out this connection in battle.  Often his thoughts on tactics and strategy come couched in aphorisms of the samurai, especially Mushashi Miyamoto.

But this applies to the whole Japanese naval effort.  Certainly Japan faced certain strategic limitations given their relatively small industrial capacity, but their tactics reminded me of the final sword battle of Zatoichi.  The best samurai win with one stroke.  The Japanese developed torpedoes that had longer range and ran without leaving a distinct trail in the water.  This gave them an advantage that they attempted to exploit in samurai like fashion.  They sought to fire first from long range, well before U.S. ships could fire.  If successful, the naval battle would over immediately.  But if not–and the long ranges from which they fired made this less than likely–the advantage would immediately swing to the Americans.  On the one hand, their concepts make sense apart from samurai lore.  If you have a smaller chance of winning a close-fought battle (Americans never had to worry about supplies of ammo) try and win it from long-range.  Even so, we still see the samurai connection.

We this seeking after a decisive final-blow in other aspects of Hara’s account.  He frequently criticized any effort of Japan that failed to use its forces en masse in decisive faction, citing the adage, “A lion uses all its strength when catching a rabbit.”  Even in April of 1945, with no chance of victory, Hara seems strangely at peace with their final naval assault.  Many eagerly sought death in samurai fashion in an entirely hopeless battle.  Hara, if I may venture  a guess, seems pleased in a more detached sense that the navy had marshaled all its remaining ships and at least would now use them all at once.  In this last moment for the Japanese navy we see the Zatoichi sword fight connection.  Rather than keep their ships back to defend Japan, they sought a grand offensive thrust at our beachhead in Okinawa (which also mirrors how they used their torpedos).**

When discussing Guadalcanal Hara shows a keen understanding of strategic and tactical success.  The Japanese at one point won a key battle by sinking several U.S. ships.  The Japanese celebrated.  Hara did not.  He noted that nothing about the situation in Guadalcanal had fundamentally changed.  The U.S. could still supply its men, and the Japanese still could not supply their own.  Soon after the Japanese evacuated their troops.

I thought of this earlier section of the book when reading the last paragraph.  Hara writes,

The powerful navy which had launched the Pacific war 40 months before with the attack on Pearl Harbor had at last been struck down.  On April 7, 1945, the Japanese Navy died.

That’s it?  After giving many opinions and demonstrating time and again the ability and courage to criticize and analyze situations, I found myself mystified that he offered no general conclusions.   Why?  Again, I am guessing . . . but in the midst of battle, Hara dedicated himself to victory at (almost) any cost.^  Part of this ‘cost’ came in the form of even criticizing high command.  But once the war ended, perhaps Hara thought of himself as a ronin, masterless and without purpose.  Reflection about some grand meaning after the fact might for him resemble one hand clapping in a void of space–what would be the point?  Perhaps . . . perhaps, Hara resembled Zatoichi in more than just a sense of samurai vocation.  Perhaps his field of psychological vision was likewise obscured.

Dave

*I assume this is a poor translation and the title in Japanese is not so wooden.

**Perhaps another connection . . . Hara laments that the Japanese could not build small torpedo boats akin to our PT class ships.  They had the requisite physical capability, of course, but not, it seems, the ability to match the mental will and physical capacity.  Hara offers no explanation for this so my guess will be exceedingly tentative . . . the PT boat offered nothing that would produce a decisive and grand blow.  No samurai wanted to inflict a death of 1000 cuts.

I mentioned one effect of the democratization of the samurai ethos in this post.  In a more mild vein, Hara mentions a samurai drinking ceremony related to battle.  Now, with all supposed to embody the samurai spirit, all would drink as the samurai did.  But, there are many more men in the navy than there were samurai.  Hara recounts several amusing instances when he “had” to drink many many toasts with his men, with almost any occasion an excuse to drink.

^Hara felt that too many in Japan’s military applied the bushido ethic too far and too liberally, merely seeking death as preferable to life.  Hara did not fundamentally object to suicide missions, but he did believe that they must serve some purpose beyond the merely symbolic.  He objected to the final sortie to Okinawa not because it would involve the destruction of the fleet, but because it would needlessly destroy the fleet.  Hara wanted instead to sell his life attacking supply and transport ships, to do at least some damage to the U.S.

The Burma Campaign

My grandfather fought with the 101st Airborne Division in Europe during W.W. II, and received a Silver Star for bravery in action.  But I remember on more than one occasion him saying that he was grateful he fought in Europe instead of the Pacific/Asian theater.  The jungle, he said, might have been too much for him.

I couldn’t agree more.  Jungle warfare sounds like a nightmare to me.  Frank McLynn’s fine book does nothing to dispel my notions.

For jungle warfare, how about Burma? — home to large amounts of man-eating crocodiles and tigers.  Of the 2500 known species of snakes in the world, only about 200 pose any threat to mankind.  But just about all of them can be found in Burma, a country with the largest known concentration of deadly snakes on the planet.  True, most of them avoid mankind if they can.  Alas, not the small krait, the most feared of all Burmese snakes.  Called “The Two Step” (that’s as far as you can walk if bitten before you collapse and die), these snakes had no problem hiding themselves in the dark corners of tents, or in sleeping bags and boots.

All this to say nothing of the monsoon rains or the malaria infested mosquitos.

Perhaps its our general aversion to the jungle, or our familiarity with Europe, that has led us to overlook the massive war in Burma between 1942-1945, which at various times involved more than 600,000 allied troops.

I say to my students that. . .

  • Military problems are really political problems
  • Political problems are really cultural problems
  • Cultural problems are really religious problems.

I am 100% sure that I did not invent this idea, though I can’t place its origin.  And while I can’t prove it in every case, it sure sounds good, and I expect that it’s true.

But I do think one can see the above principle work itself out in most cases, including the Burma campaign.

For example, Japan had tremendous initial success in Burma as they had all over Southeast Asia in the early days of the war.  Their “bushido” mentality helped form a fearsome army that overwhelmed Allied forces initially.  But this same mentality led them towards an unrealistic view of themselves and their opponents.  Their rigid culture formed a rigid military that did not believe that their opponent could ever learn and adjust their tactics, because after all, they never adjusted their own.  British forces eventually climbed up the learning curve and started to hammer the Japanese by 1944.

Yet, the Japanese continue to do the only thing they know how to do — attack.  Bushido cares primarily about honor, not victory.  Perhaps what the Japanese sought most was not even honor, but an “honorable” death.  Their “attaque a outrance” over Asia seemed to court death and destruction.  As McLynn notes, by war’s end they had the United Kingdom, the U.S., the Soviets, and China as enemies.  Not even the Nazi’s showed such insanity.  Perhaps Japan worshipped death most of all, and as C.S. Lewis noted, we must be careful what we wish for, lest we actually receive it.  Japanese tactics did not change during the war, no doubt due in part to their rigid culture.  But it may also have to do with the fact that they pointed their car to head over the cliff.  The Imphal campaign, where the Japanese planned a massive attack knowing that they their troops would lack the necessary supplies to succeed, again illustrates this concept.

The book starts by describing England’s role in Burma, and their record left much to be desired.  Thankfully for them (though not the Burmese), the Japanese proved much worse landlords, and this I think relates to the paragraph above.  I am reminded of Chesterton’s comment that,

Thieves respect property.  They merely wish the property to become their property, that they may more perfectly respect it.

An attitude I think, that reflects the British and Japanese in Burma.  The Burmese in the end, could tell the differences between British respecters of property and the Japanese, who sought only destruction.

George MacDonald Fraser’s memoir of his time in Burma sheds additional light.  Strikingly to me, at least, he hardly mentions the snakes, tigers, and crocodiles, and mostly concentrated on the mosquitos.  He respects the Japanese, but certain anecdotes he relates make it clear that the Japanese did not seek military success above “honorable” death.  He tells tales of soldiers charging entrenched British positions with nothing more than a sword, yelling maniacally.  After Imphal the Japanese were surely beaten, but none of them ever surrendered.

Fraser’s account  also hints at the coming political transformation of Asia, especially regarding India.  Churchill feared using the Indian Army to fight in Burma since he wanted to keep the British empire intact after the war.  An army that fought to defend India would inevitably bring home a sense of pride that would translate into independence.  Of course the independence movement had begun before the war in India, but the war certainly accelerated it.  One Indian soldier, puffed with patriotism, flew too close the sun and insulted a Gurkha while exalting his own Indian people.  The gurkha needed a dozen men to prevent him from killing the Indian in reprisal (as a brief aside, what would one not believe about the exploits of Gurkhas?  Fraser tells of one Gurkha regiment, who, on a whim, attacked a lost and bewildered Japanese detachment with no guns — only knives — killing all and suffering no casualties themselves).  The Brits explained to the gurkha that if he killed the Indian he would be tried for murder and hang.  This did nothing to deter him.  One of them changed tactics and said that if he killed the Indian he would be thrown out of the army and he would never receive his officer’s commission.  That, and that only, did the trick.  The gurkha finally backed down after a long and profuse apology from the Indian.

Fraser doesn’t talk much about anyone higher than his immediate circle, but McLynn makes a few interesting observations about allied leaders in Burma.  Churchill was known for being impetuous, and he tended to like people with just that quality.  Just as Churchill’s political career survived numerous missteps and disasters, so too he supported Mountbatten and Windgate (leaders of the special forces in Burma, who specialized in dramatic, but possible ineffective campaigns).  All three had enormous self-confidence.  Churchill and Mountbatten had both been involved in political/military disasters that should have ended their careers.  But luckily for the Allied cause only Windgate may have actually bordered on insanity.  The jungle, perhaps, can do that to you.

Democracies and their Special Forces

Field Marshal Viscount Slim memoir Defeat into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India is generally regarded as one the finest, if not the finest military memoir.  Having read it (and not having read many others) I won’t dispute the claim.  I often have a hard time with books written by ex-officers, who I find usually bog down in details.  I also, to be fair, have a hard time with spatial relations and without solid maps right in front of me I often get lost.

Slim’s writing bears some marks of what usually gives me trouble with books like this.  What distinguishes this book is his sense of style and humor.  He shares many anecdotes that paint himself a bit poorly.  He shares honest introspection about his actions without getting too much inside his own head.  When he asserts opinions of people he likes or dislikes he admits that others have different opinions.  Finally, he seemed interested in the campaign as a whole, more so than his role in it.

One of his slightly controversial opinions involved Orde Wingate.  Wingate was just the sort of commander that would appeal to Churchill.  Like Churchill he loved the knight-errant approach to war, and so the Chindits, or special forces, of the Burma campaign, gave Wingate a chance to sally forth boldly behind enemy lines.  The direct military effectiveness of his operations seemed limited, though even Slim admits that he boosted morale through the exploits of his men in the aftermath of a complete defeat inflicted by Japan.

Slim’s concluding comments interested me most about this aspect of the Burma campaign.  He thought that England’s reliance on special forces, and the mythology surrounding special forces, did not serve an overall good purpose.  He mentions the variety of special forces the British used (i.e. mountain divisions, amphibious divisions, long-range penetration divisions, and so on).  He acknowledged that some showed great examples of courage but writes,

Yet I came firmly to the conclusion that such [special forces] . . . were wasteful.  They did not give, militarily, a worth-while return the resources in men, material, and time they absorbed.

To begin with, they were usually formed by attracting the best men from the normal units by better conditions, promises of excitement, and not a little propaganda.   . . . The result of these methods was to undoubtedly to lower the quality of the rest of the army, not only by drawing off the cream from it, but by encouraging the idea that certain of the normal operations of war were so difficult that only specially equipped elite corp could undertake them.  Anything, whatever short-cuts to victory it may promise, which thus weakens the army spirit is dangerous.

. . . The level of initiative, training, and weapon skill required in a commando is admirable; what is not admirable is that it should be confined to a few small units.  Any well-trained infantry battalion should be able to do what any commando can do . . .   This cult of special forces is as sensible as to form a Royal Corp of Tree Climbers and say that no soldier who does not wear its green hat with a bunch of oak leaves stuck in it should be allowed to climb a tree.

Slim retracts a wee bit of this statement when he acknowledges that certain special units devoted to intelligence and sabotage, which fall outside the duties of standard training for  a soldier, but reiterates his main point when he stresses that the multiplication of special forces in Burma made unified command difficult to attain.

Our current war on terrorism presents many political and military challenges.  We have responded in part by significantly increasing the prominence of our special forces, both in budgets, deployments, and perhaps also in a surrounding “mythos” about them.  Like Slim, I am grateful for their courage and dedication.  Perhaps unlike him, I am not willing to apply his thoughts wholesale to our current situation just yet.  We face different sorts of military challenges now as opposed to W.W. II.  But we should not assume that we can do whatever we like militarily without it  having consequences on our values and political practices.   We should at least ask whether or not the increase of special forces may distance the military from the general public, or whether or not the military will be for “the common man” in the near future.

Special Forces demand, among other things, a great deal more secrecy, something else Slim abhorred.  Along with drones, they can be used with less public notice and oversight.  Democracies do not thrive with a populace disconnected from its government.  Is there a parallel between the increase of special forces use and the recent NSA scandals?  In other words, a military disconnected from a general democratic population may work (even unconsciously) to undermine the political application of democratic values.

Other wars have brought about shifts in our country’s values, sometimes for the better.  Maybe this current war will lead us into a better place as well.  Whatever the case, we cannot escape some kind of social and political change if we continue to fight in almost exclusively in a clandestine manner, and these changes will likely alter how we practice democracy at home.

Traditional Strengths

About a month ago Jordan Peterson returned to the public eye after a long period of dealing with his own personal and family medical issues. Controversy followed him in his earlier rise to prominence, and sure enough, controversy picked up where it left off with his first major interview in years with the Sunday Times. It appears that the published interview, and the unpublished edited transcript, show that the Times performed something of a hit piece. Given the mainstream media’s general dislike of Peterson (I also am critical of certain aspects of his message, and appreciative of others), some called into question why he would give the interview at all. One could easily assume that it came from weakness–a desire to correct the “embarrassment” of his departure from the public eye and subsequent issues with medication. Others questioned why he would, even with the best of motives, open himself up to the “jackals” of leftist media.

Peterson acknowledged the issues and explained some of his motivation on his website, writing,

So, what would a wise man do?

Learn my lesson, and avoid the press at all cost? But I don’t know how to distinguish that from turning my tail and hiding, and I think that would be worse for me, even in my currently compromised state, than continuing to engage as I have.

Only choose to make myself available to outlets that will produce positive coverage? First, how do I know which outlets are trustworthy. I could only talk to people with whom I have become friendly, such as David Rubin and Joe Rogan. But I don’t think it’s right to stay inside what risks becoming a mere echo chamber.

Was it a mistake for me to conduct the now-infamous Channel Four interview with Cathy Newman? Or the almost equally-viewed GQ interview with Helen Lewis? Both of those were markedly hostile. Were they failures, or successes? I don’t think it is unreasonable to note that they are markedly of our time, and perhaps indicate something important–whatever that might be–about our time. Both have garnered some 25 million views. There’s something of broad public interest about the tension that characterizes both conversations….

GQ, motivated by the success (?) of the Helen Lewis interview, plans to produce a profile on me in the near future. I have been asked to make myself available for an interview. Should I do it? I haven’t decided. If it goes badly, will I only have myself to blame? Should I therefore avoid it?

I hope to be judicious in my decisions about when and where to speak. I hope that I can stick to the truth when I do so, and believe that there is no better defense (and, indeed, no better offense) than that? Do I trust myself to tell the truth? Will my ego invariably get in the way? Has that already happened?

As the man says: You pays your money and you takes your chances.

I have no idea if Peterson should continue to give such interviews. But his “staying the course” I feel shows at least some strength. He gave such interviews before, which people interpreted in different ways. He can continue to give such interviews, with likely the same result–people will continue to disagree about him, perhaps even sharply so. But if he chooses the path of more mainstream interviews I will not condemn him. The temptation invariably will tend, however, towards seeing that choice as a weakness–as a love of attention, as an attempt to cover over his illness, etc. We love to break down narratives and deconstruct.

Within the Pseudepigrapha there exists a delightful story called “Joseph and Aseneth,” which details the marriage between the biblical Joseph and the daughter of the priest of On (Gen. 41:45). Essentially, Aseneth has great beauty and is much desired throughout the land of Egypt, but refuses to consider marriage to the great Joseph. Joseph, for his part, wants nothing to do with someone devoted to idols. But Aseneth repents, forsakes her gods, and marries Joseph, all the while preventing a clash between Joseph’s brothers and the Pharoah’s eldest son.

What struck me in particular the means whereby the editor (someone named C. Burchard) of the text framed the story. First, we have the insinuation that the story is designed to cover over an embarrassment–“How could Joseph–the model of chastity, piety, and statesmanship, marry a foreign Hamitic girl, daughter of an idolatrous priest?”* Rather–should we not see the story in terms of the triumph of the whole biblical narrative? If we read the Old Testament from Christ backwards, we should expect to see marriages to foreigners as a foreshadowing of Christ “wooing” the Gentiles into the Kingdom of God.

Second, despite the clear statement that, “The book is an author’s work, not a folk tale which has no progenitor,” the editor seeks here and there for textual origins of the story. I apologize, for I have little stomach for the minutiae of scholars on such questions, though I admit the minutiae has its place at times. I feel, however, that often we make things too complicated. He sees the origin of the story’s framework in various kinds of Greek literature, writing, “More helpful is hellenistic romance [most agree that the story was originally written in Greek], especially the erotic variety as represented by the Great Five, “Chariton’s ‘Chaereas and Calirrrhoe,’ Xenophon of Ephesus . . . [etc.]” I confess I have no idea who these authors are, but again–might we not be trying too hard for the sake of trying too hard? Isn’t there plenty of “origin” within the Old Testament itself, i.e., the Song of Songs, Hosea and Gomer, or the Book of Ruth for such romantic tales?

Though I lack all of the technical knowledge possessed by the editor, and therefore perhaps should not judge–yet–what bothers me is

  • The idea that tales such as “Joseph and Aseneth” present themselves to cover gaps, to explain away embarrassments, etc. rather than expand/magnify the existing tradition.
  • The idea that traditions are inherently weak, that they must constantly fill from the outside in

Essentially, the problem I encounter at times (though perhaps I judge the editor C. Burchard too harshly) involves focusing so much on the bark of one tree that no one sees the forest.^

Rachel Hallote’s Death, Burial, and Afterlife in the Biblical World suffers from a similar problem. Her main thesis involves showing that the burial practices she uncovered show that the Israelites borrowed heavily from pagan practices in other peoples, and therefore failed to follow Mosaic law in their attitude towards the dead. Well, given the many denuniciations found in the prophets and elsewhere, the fact that Israel broke various commandments should not surprise us. We do not need an archaeologist to tell us this, though some of the burial details could illumine how they broke biblical law and whom they might have borrowed from. But, hearkening back to my earlier point, many scholars see themselves in the role of breaking down traditions by finding smoking guns in the historical record. When they do so, they sometimes miss the forest, as I think Rachel Hallote has in her book.

Hallote’s central point revolves around her observations that, while the Mosaic Law seems to mandate a definitive break between the living and dead, and that Israelite burial practices show a much more fluid relationship between them. Her main observations include:

  • Evidence of family members buried in agricultural fields, and not strictly formal graves. While at first glance this may seem disrespectful, Hallote and others speculate that the dead were to function as sentinels, in a sense, of fields laying fallow. Israel practiced this, as did other Middle Bronze Age cultures.
  • Iron and Bronze age burials of family members also took place under houses, indicating a continued relationship with the departed. The members buried under houses might be those still thought in need of care in some way, such as children or the elderly–not those in between, who might be buried in fields.
  • A strong suggestion that alternate forms of burial, such as placing a body under a stone mound, likely indicated that such a person was to receive no offerings, prayers, etc. It was a way of marking that person as ‘cursed’ in some way (i.e., Josh. 8:29, 10:27).

I see her chapter “The Cult of the Dead in Ancient Israel ” as central to her thesis. She cites various proscriptions about not participating in “sacrifices” to the dead, common among the Canaanites. She then goes on to point out that various Old Testament texts show that Israelites participated in such practices, such as Ps. 106:28. Certain particular archaeological finds certainly can illumine these texts for us. But she puts all of her eggs into the archaeology basket–everything similar from the Israelites and the Canaanites regarding their dead for her must mean an unbiblical syncretism. She cites a variety of passages from 1 Samuel to show that Israelites conducted yearly worship service families for their dead (1 Sm. 1:21, 2:19, 20:6, 20:29), which apparently the Canaanites also held. Yet no condemnation exists that I am aware of for such services (one of the references involves the soon to be crowned David and the family of Jesse).

Where Hallote sees embarrassment, I see strength. Some time ago my wife knew a lady that attended a particular church with a distinct fundamentalist leaning. Our friends’ skirts were inevitably the length of her shins. Obviously, skirts too short would be immodest. But at that time, long flowing skirts were very much in fashion. Thus, to avoid “worldliness” one had to wear modest skirts that out of fashion–to wear something modest but “fashionable” would not cut it. Should shin length skirts shoot up in popularity, her church would switch to those of a longer length. When one tacks so much to the world around them, “strength” is not the word most would use. Ideally one has such confidence in their way of life, that the world around them fades as a reference point. So in Deut. 26:13-14, Hallote sees evidence of Mosaic law making a concession to existing practices that Israelite leaders cannot control, rather than establishing a clear delineation between having a relationship with the dead and offering them sacrifices. She sees weakness where she should see strength.

So, not every Canaanite practice is “wrong,” just as not every fashion choice the “world” makes Christians need to avoid. A further distinction Hallote misses shows the limits of what archaeology can prove. To praise the dead is not worship. To remember the dead is not worship. To pray for them is not to worship them (i.e, 2 Macc. 12). To ask them to pray for us is not worshiping them. To offer sacrifices to them–that is worship, and that the Law and the Prophets condemns.

Archaeology deals with “facts,” with observational, physical data. So when Hallote observes practices that allow for a narrowly “physical” meaning, that is what she puts forth. So the Israelites used spices for the dead because of the smell of decomposition in the hot weather. Or, they buried people under trees to provide a kind of fertilization. To her credit, when such a narrow interpretation would lead into absurdity, she backs off (as in the above cited examples about burials in fields, for example). But why not apply that same symbolic understanding to all of what she sees? Surely, a trees at least have a great deal of rich layers of meaning attached to them. Surely death itself is a great mystery and only the barest minority of us deals with it in a strictly physical manner.

Archaeology can give wonderful insights into particular matters, and the strengths of Hallote’s work share in the strengths of that field. But trees can never show you the forest.

Dave

*After writing this, upon reflection and a re-read, I may have read the editor’s intro to the story (C. Burchard, found in Charlesworth’s collection of the Pseudepigrapha, p. 177 ff.) too critically. A week later I am not as confident in my interpretation above–the idea of the editor that the story meant to cover an embarrassment. I still think it likely given the tone and content of the intro, but I may be over-sensitive. If anyone else reads it for themselves and wants to offer a correction, my ears are open. Of course, this initial reading of the Burchard’s intro formed the basis of this haphazard post, so naturally I cannot question my initial reading too substantially.

**The story may be of Christian or Jewish origin. Either way, there is the fascinating renaming of Aseneth to “City of Refuge.” If the story is of Jewish origin, it shows that Marian typology, i.e., Mary as the “City of God” has its roots within Jewish tradition. If the story is of Christian origin, it shows us how to read back into stories “types of Mary” just as we can read back “types of Christ.”

^I find it perfectly natural that western scholars should seek to deconstruct traditions, for they would naturally view traditions as weak. Modern western civilization is built on a rejection of tradition. It is in our cultural DNA to assume that traditions are weak because we naturally assume a kind of unreality about them. Thus, it seems we must continually find underdogs to keep our culture moving at all.

“Social Theories of the Middle Ages”

There is the idea touted by some that “a thing can be known only by its opposite.” Perhaps this idea has more cache in today’s parlance due to the rise of eastern philosophies in the west. However attractive the idea sounds on the most important questions it doesn’t hold up.  The Devil does indeed need God, but God has no need of the Devil.  Adam and Eve had every chance of knowing God perfectly before the presence of sin — of course sin prevents us from knowing God as we ought.

Still, on lesser questions the aphorism has its usefulness, including in History.  We rarely can see the nose on our face, and so it’s hard to understand one’s own society just by looking at one’s own society.  Instead we need perspective, and history can provide this.  Of course we should not look at history merely as a vehicle for understanding our own time.  Rather we can say that good history both opens up new worlds to us and sheds light on our own.  Such is the accomplishment of Bede Jarrett’s Social Theories of the Middle Ages.  His chosen title fails to inspire, and at times his writing follows his title and gets bogged down and technical.  But all in all Jarrett succeeds in his stated aim of fairly portraying a world strangely familiar to us and yet not so familiar.

Jarrett divides his examination by category, and so we have chapters on Law, Education, Women, and son on.  Right away in his first chapter on “Law” we see differences between us and them. Before thinking about particular laws the medievals thought in terms of their proper “ends” or to use the Greek term, the “telos” of a particular law.  No law made sense unless put in a larger theological context.  In order to know this context we need to know not just our ends as human beings in general, but also our origins.  So any medieval theory of law must first start by talking about creation, natural law, sin, and so on.  Then they move on to questions about salvation, and the role of law as an aid to that process.  Having done this, now we can move on to actual laws.  So while the medievals often focused on the big picture, they had a rigid categorical exactness about their thinking.

This had two seemingly different kinds of consequences.  One is that specific laws might matter much less than the theory behind the laws, and so law itself disappears in the shuffle.  We see this in one medieval Welsh code of “law” where a woman could be remitted for a particular offense if she paid a fine of “a penny as wide as her behind.”  In other words, we need not worry about law at all.  On the other hand, medieval thinkers consistently mentioned that law “must adhere to the bones of the people” — it had to fit a time and context (again we see the medieval exactitude at work) to have real validity.

I said these attitudes presented only a seeming difference.  What held them together, I think, is that for them laws had validity only because of our temporal earthly existence.  When “History” serves its purpose we shall have no need of law at all.  To understand the place of law one must first understand the temporary nature of the state itself.  One then, can play with law, either to fit a particular occasion, or in the case of the Welsh, for our particular amusement.  It is this sense of distance from law the medievals had that differentiates our society and theirs.  Anyone who has been ticketed in a “Mandatory Headlight Use Area” though the sun shines brightly, or been caught in a speed trap on a road with a speed limit well below the road’s design, has felt the absolute nature of law in the modern west.  We treat the law thusly because we do not do as the medievals did — we have no “higher end ” in view, only the power of the consent of governed at our disposal.

But I should not give the impression that Jarrett romanticizes the Middle Ages, though I think he certainly is fond of them.  He wades into the controversy surrounding how to translate the Latin word “servus,” and has no qualms about rendering it as a “slave.”  He denies that slavery disappeared during the middle ages (though it did decrease significantly from Roman times) because a certain class of people had no legal freedoms.  In this he departs from the fiery Regine Pernoud, who called it the height of ignominious irresponsibility to render “servus,” as “slave.”*  The strict categorical methodology they used spilled over into their society at large at times to an unhealthy degree.

The modern perspective on such a social arrangement might incline towards tolerance — some might excuse it as a necessary stage to better things down the road (much as some might excuse the condition of the urban lower-class at the beginning of the industrial era).  They might be less willing to excuse the medieval view of women, at least at first glance.  Here Jarrett urges caution, for most often those that wrote were monks, because they had the best educations.  And monastic writing about women would have its own particular concerns apart from the larger community.  One gets a more robust picture of medieval women in the Canterbury Tales, for example.  Jarrett points out that,

  • Women who entered convents could receive a very similar kind of education as men.  That the education of men and women would be equal in any sense might have been a historical first.
  • “Their intelligence is more keen and more quick than that of a man.”  So said Franco Sanchetti, with general agreement from others.
  • Women had some opportunity to make a vital contribution to Christian culture at large, witness Christiana de Pisan.
  • Women had an honored place as nuturers and civilizers of men.
  • No era that gave such veneration to the Blessed Virgin Mary could be said to truly denigrate women.

But Jarrett also points out that women often got blamed for the Fall of mankind in general.  And many saw women as quicker to do evil than men — Sanchetti, quoted above, admired feminine intelligence but thought they used this intelligence to work more evil than men.

As Jarrett often does, he turns to Aquinas to help provide balance between these two seeming poles.  “The image of God in man in its principal signification — namely, the intellectual nature — is found both in man and in woman . . . .  But in a secondary sense the image of God is found in man and not in woman: for man is the beginning and end of woman, as God is the beginning and end of all things.  So when the Apostle had said that man is the image and glory of God but woman is the glory of man (I Cor. 11:7), he adds this reason, ‘for man is not of woman, but woman of man; and man was not created for women, but women for men.'”  Again in Aquinas, as we see so often, the “telos” of things guided their thinking.

We moderns cringe at this, but the best medievals would not have seen secondary status (if we wish to call it that) as denigrating.  We tend to measure worth in accomplishments or opportunities to live as we wish.  The medievals found glory in living out one’s assigned role in the grand cosmic dance that led to salvation.  So St. Francis (a man who understood chivalry perfectly) in his glorious “Canticle of the Sun” (see below) exults in the feminine aspects of creation because the feminine exults in meekness, which leads to humility.  And without humility no one can receive salvation.  From the medieval perspective (here I speculate) Jesus does not say, “The poor will always be with you,” because of the inevitability of sin, or the intractable problems of just political and economic systems.  Rather, some must play the role of “poverty” so that others will have the chance of exercising charity, and thereby become more like God.

This leads to what might most interest our economically minded/obsessed age, the medieval attitude towards money and property (there is an extended chapter on the medieval attitude towards war as well, but that gets covered in large measure here for any who have interest).  We experience confusion in the modern world about such things because we have no proper sense of the “telos” of money.  Jesus gives us many warnings about money’s destructive power, and yet we need money to live.  Money therefore has a proper place in the scheme of things, but money must be subordinated to its proper “end.”  So we should have enough to provide for our family.  We should seek also to have enough to practice charity.  Such is the proper, though temporary “end” of money.  Some would probably argue that a few might have a lot more money than this, but why?  To better reflect the image of God to creation, in this case, that of munificence or “kingly joy.”  By custom, though not law, the wealthy were expected to royally “fete” the poor under their charge on the most prominent of feast days (indeed, the mingling of rich and poor would have been much more common then than now).^

Property ownership as well came with this same tension.  Since God truly owned all things, in what sense could we own anything?  Medieval concepts of ownership absented themselves from our modern absolute legal concepts.  Rather, medievals “had use” of certain things, and then only on a contingent basis.  So the king had power provided he upheld his oath.  Nobles could receive grants of land from the king provided they served him faithfully.  None owned anything absolutely. The right to use something depended on whether or not you used it faithfully, according to the telos of the thing used.  Jarrett points out that absolute concepts of ownership came to the modern west with a revival of classical ideas in the Renaissance.  For the Romans, Rome was the telos of all things, so Roman ownership of property or people could be absolute. They had nothing beyond themselves from which they could take their pulse.  Aesthetically too, the contingent complexities of the medievals created stained glass.  The clear simplicities of the Renaissance smashed many of these windows and replaced them with clear panes just as the clear, classical concepts of Roman law began to replace the complex labyrinth that was the medieval synthesis.

In the early 20th century a group of thinkers led by men like G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc attempted to revive medieval economic concepts for the modern world.  They failed to make much headway, and most of their admirers attribute this failure to a lack of a defined system or program adapted for the modern world.  I have a different idea as to their lack of success.

Many might admire medieval views on property and wealth, but they arose within a defined context.  Specifically, the medieval focus on contextualizing everything in light of its place in the scheme of salvation gave them a framework in which to place wealth and property.  We have rejected the context of medieval views on things, and without that context, we have no agreed upon telos for money and property as the medievals had.  Our society values maximizing freedom and opportunity for the individual, and so the more wealth, the more opportunities to extend the self into places yet unknown.  Again, the medievals valued stability much more than change, innovation, and the need for “forward momentum.”  Without the medieval theological and psychological context, medieval ideas about economics would be dead on arrival.  We often wish to have our cake and eat it as well, but societies can not be put together in such a hodge-podge fashion.  We must choose the telos we pursue.

Dave

*Solving this riddle depends largely on how one defines “slave.”  Medieval peasants at the very bottom of the social ladder were slaves in the sense that they had very very few freedoms they could exercise on their own.  Unlike the slaves of most other cultures, however, even those at the very bottom had certain engrained legal protections in law and from the Church.  Also medieval “slaves” were almost entirely bound to the soil, which meant certain periods of long hours, and certain extended periods of relative inactivity.  And they also would have been exempt from work on numerous medieval feast and saint days in the Church calendar.

^In his The Court Society, Norbert Elias mentions a few aristocratic Spanish families who bankrupted themselves by projects, gifts, and feasts for those in their charge, and gained glory thereby.  Their family had in a sense, fulfilled its place in society by demonstrating such largesse.

— Regarding the “Canticle of the Sun” . . .

I partially agree with those that regard St. Thomas and St. Francis as the best fulfillment of medieval society.  St. Thomas’ massive Summa Theologica stands as perhaps the greatest extended theological treatise in the history of the Church.  But St. Francis possibly had a greater degree of sanctity.  And in one fell swoop of poetic insight, St. Francis both perfectly expressed the medieval vision and revealed timeless truths.

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.

To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure sickness and trial.

Happy those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve Him with great humility.

“A Land of Great Sinners, a Land of Great Saints”

If you can imagine a young, somewhat effete French aristocrat taking a trip to Russia to observe and perhaps even be instructed by their ways, then you can probably imagine the reaction of a colleague of mine who saw me reading the book.  He commented, “A French aristocrat observing Russians?  The poor man will be bound to say something like,’Oh, I can’t even!'”

Indeed, the Marquis von Custine found himself most unimpressed with the Russians and made that absolutely clear in his memoir of 1839, Empire of the Czar.

I feel for the Marquis.  His father perished in the French Revolution.  His mother survived only through good fortune.  He saw the rise of Napoleon and the attendant uncertainty following his fall.  Scarred by democracy and revolution, he came to Russia in hopes of finding an elixir to the political ills of the west.  Expecting so much, and indeed, too much, the crushing disappointment and disillusionment he expressed should not surprise us.

Obviously one can find much to critique about Russia.  The fact that Custine doesn’t like Russia should not bother the historian.  But Custine’s dislike is visceral and almost hysterical in nature.  Nearly everything disgusts him.  The lay of the land fills his soul with ennui, the architecture of the cities leave him cold.  The expressions of the people leave him perplexed and alienated.   It is not so much that he observes a kind of brutality, but that even the brutality seems lifeless.  He searches for explanations and finds none.  Those he encounters defend the situation by saying something like, “The soul of Russia is not veiled over or explained by any sort of doctrines,” which only enrage him all the more.  Inevitably he returns to his main theme, that Russia has no spontaneity, that all everywhere has a military bearing all the time, that no one ever laughs except on cue, and so on.  He lets himself go a bit and admits for a paragraph or two to admiring the Peterhof palace (pictured below), for example.  But then he inevitably returns to his theme–i.e., “yes it is grand and magnificent, but no one is happy here, one must force every gesture,” and so on.  His main lesson for all French parents boils down to, “If your children complain about France, send them to Russia.  They will return full of love for their native land.”

At roughly the same time as the Marquis went to Russia, Alexis de Tocqueville (another French aristocrat) came to America to observe democracy in action.  Tocqueville created an acknowledged masterpiece, in turn praising, critiquing, and giving deadpan analysis of nascent democratic practice.  Custine’s work strays nowhere near this.  Granted, sometimes he entertains his readers more than Tocqueville did.  His fits of astonishment and disgust provide a kind of comedy.

Though the book has obvious flaws, the Marquis provides something different than most historians.  He offers not analysis but a kind of poetry.  He offers to capture Russia in a painting rather than in prose.  He seeks to provide an interpretation even above seeking an understanding.

I don’t entirely fault him for this.  In fact I think we need more writers like him.  At least Custine dares greatly.

If one is an Orthodox Christian, as I am, one need not absolutely love Russia, but, one must at least come to know the Russians and appreciate them in some way. Their history bears witness to a great wisdom born from a great suffering.  The list of “new martyrs” under Communism is immeasurably long.  Their novelists write with an unmatched power to move the soul, as do their filmmakers.  I think it no coincidence that many of the greatest spiritual witnesses of the last century have been Russians.

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Icon of the “New Martyrs” under Soviet rule.

And yet the blunt brutality witnessed by Custine (not so much in specific acts but in demeanor and habits) shows up often in Russia’s history. The horrors of Stalin had much to do with ideology and the particular leaders in place.  But we must admit too that the gulags, murders, and martyrs could not have happened just anywhere.  I once heard an American Orthodox priest sigh and say, “Ah, Russia, a land of great sinners, a land of great saints,” and he said this with a mixture of admiration, frustration, and bewilderment.  Though he has visited Russia on a few occasions spanning multiple years, he too did not understand.

But, though he did not understand, still, he saw the different sides.  So while I don’t blame Custine for his poetic attempt at understanding, it fails–not because he is negative–but because he blinds himself to Russia’s virtues.  If everyone really existed at the level of misery he describes their civilization would have collapsed some time ago.  And yet, they not only keep going, they have found a way to maintain their identity in the face of several disasters dating back centuries, from the Mongol invasions, to the “Time of Troubles,” through Napoleon, World War II, and the like.  Clearly Russia has something that Custine failed to see.

But–I heartily approve of the nature of his project and the way he attempted to understand Russia.  Historians do their job well when they can hone in on something specific and use it to explain the whole.  They need the flair of an artist.  As one historian comments,

My answer is an hypothesis, and it can take form both simple and complex. Most simply: history was—and still is— becoming elusive as well as ever more uncomfortable. Poets and novelists are people whose vocation it is to see and say as much as possible the whole of things rather than their division into categories; they are sensitive to a wholeness they believe to be really there and really prepotent over appearances even if it can be grasped only by synoptic and symbolic vision attending to minute particulars.

When one tries to specify a little more this elusiveness of history, the same hypothesis takes a more complicated, more problematic, maybe even a more dubious form. This form has to do with the amazing growth of the scientific way of viewing the world, and with the corresponding growth of the technological way of changing the world that went along with it. Most plainly, the poets have never been happy under the reign of Newtonian mechanics and Kantian criticism. Their distrust of, their protests against, the consequences entailed upon life and thought by this physics and this philosophy form a major strand in the movement known as Romanticism, which indeed may not be over yet. For it was the effect of Newton to remove mind from the cosmos except as a passive recording instrument, and the effect of the dominance of Kant’s philosophy to remove from remaining mind any access whatever to ultimate reality. Whereas poetic thought can proceed beyond the minimal affirmation of parlor verse only upon the supposition that the world is equally and simultaneously perceivable as real and as transpicuous, or sacramental, and that no percept is ever divorced entirely from concept.

The best historians will not necessarily need gobs of data.  For some writers, data and not conclusions or interpretation form their main concern.  While obviously saying nothing against facts, historians should know how to find the right part that illumines the whole.

I’ll make my own attempt to sum up all things Russian–the banning of Jehovah’s Witnesses, their religious revival, Putin swimming in icy lakes, and the like, via a story from the Russian Book of the Year for 2012 entitled Everyday Saints, which mainly tells stories about the monks in the one monastery the Soviets could not close.  The author relates an encounter between a group of monks and some drunken hooligans, which I paraphrase here.

The monks walked along a country road and came upon a few louts.  The foolish and loud youths threw mud and insults at them, calling them idlers, fools, black beetles, and other such names.

Still, the monks walked with heads bowed.

Then, “Getting no response, the idiots then took to blaspheming the Son of God and His Most Holy Mother in the foulest and most unnatural of ways.”

They stopped walking.  Their heads came up.

The priest at the head of the line stated, “I am a priest, and so may not answer.  Father Vassily is infirm, and Father Tikhon will look after him.  But Brother Alexander . . . he may answer.”

It turns out that Brother Alexander studied martial for years before entering the monastery.  He let out a ferocious yell and proceed to do some serious damage, easily taking all on at once, and leaving each man bloodied and a few with broken teeth behind him.

After checking to see that no one needed to go the hospital, the monks then continued on their way.

 

Dave

 

 

 

The Mirror Crack’d

Some years ago I saw a video about the emergence of Greek culture and the talking heads discussed the magnificent achievements of Greek drama.  Before talking about the drama itself, they mentioned the origins of drama, though only very briefly.  After all, Greek drama began in the worship of Dionysius, a confusing and strange subject for modern ears. I found it fascinating to watch the speakers deal with this aspect of Greek civilization.  They hated being on unfamiliar territory — unfamiliar not so much intellectually, that is, but emotionally and experientially.

Briefly,

  • Dionysian worship started with women sneaking off illegally, or at least shamefully, for their rites. Dionysius himself occupied, at minimum, the barest fringe of Greek religion.  Some of the commentators latched onto this, for it promised a narrative we could identify with.  “Aha!  A sisterhood of oppressed women, sharing radical beliefs! And observe the vital contribution they made to their society and the world at large, etc.”  But Dionysian rites also involved men, too, so they couldn’t press that narrative too far.
  • The Dionysian rites for women also seemed to involve ecstatic experiences invoking bulls, snakes, wine, and so on. This too got the barest mention, for the “oppressed sisterhood” narrative didn’t really match the fact that Dionysius was a fertility god, and so the women may have been praying and dancing furiously for the chance to have children, a very traditional “role” (ha!) for women to play.
  • To add insult to injury, male Dionysian worship may have invoked blessings to “survive ordeals.”  This got no mention at all.  It appears that these “rebels” danced around madly and got drunk to attempt to fulfill the most prosaic of traditional gender roles of “tough guy,” and “nurturing mother.”  This square peg had no place in their round hole interpretations.

So, after passing over all this in the quickest fashion, finally smiles came to their faces as they talked about the drama itself. Here they felt far more comfortable.  Greek drama “allows for the community to come together and deal with issues of importance,” or something like that.  Ah, yes, the “humanism” of the Greeks.  This we understand, so this they talked about at length.  Gone were any of the religious associations involving Dionysius.  The important thing to us is the emergence of drama, for without the emergence of drama, how could we watch Dumb and Dumber today instantly on Netflix?*  And we very naturally assume that what is important to us must have been of prime importance to the Greeks.  Dionysian worship, then, got relegated to a mere carrying device for what we understand and what we feel is important.  As a friend of mine stated, whenever we use a word to describe an ancient people that they themselves did not use (in this case, the word “humanism”), we will likely reach false conclusions. The talking heads are not unusual. Most of us unfortunately avoid confrontations with the “other.”

I don’t like anything Tennyson wrote (to be fair I’ve read very few of his works), but his poem “The Lady of Shallot” intrigues me in one way.  The Lady in question deals with a curse, and can only look at reflections in a mirror to ascertain reality.  The mirror of course serves as a poor substitute of reality, and later cracks upon her sad and untimely death.

Out flew the web and floated wide-

The mirror crack’d from side to side;

“The curse is come upon me,” cried

The Lady of Shalott.

Tennyson’s work came from the same spiritual place as the dreaded pre-Raphaelites, whose paintings reveal an intense desire to recover something of antiquity.  And yet the grossly over-dramatized version of the past in their eyes reveals far more about themselves, with their aspirations fit perhaps for the teenage soul more than an adult world (hence L.M. Montgomery has her young Anne of Green Gables grow fascinated with the “Lady of Shallot”).

All of us tend to distort reality to fit our own images of it, but the way the Parthenon has been interpreted over time stands as one of the more curious episodes of this typical human folly.  Joan Breton Connelly chronicles this and gives her own interpretation of the architectural masterpiece in her recent book, The Parthenon Enigma.  The building occupies pride of place in the history of western civilization.  Its marble facade inspired those who saw it to grand notions of ideal beauty.  The building’s perfect proportions inspired noble visions of clarity and a sense of true humanity.  Certain technical achievements of the building are practically unparalleled.

But we made the building in our own image, and Connelly writes to set the record straight.  Ever since the Enlightenment we have seen the Parthenon as reflecting the “humanism” of the Athenians.  We have some justification for this.  If you trace the religion of the Athenians one sees a clear descent from Aeschylus (who takes religion seriously) to Thucydides (who didn’t).  The Athenians elected Pericles to multiple terms of their highest office, and he certainly fits the humanist mold. Observers therefore assumed, as the Parthenon was Pericles’ project that it would reflect his values.  Then again, maybe not.

She has two main arguments, with the first drawn from the he Parthenon friezes, long thought to depict contemporary Athenians mingling with the gods.  Connelly has an ironclad argument that Athens instead hearkens to not to its present but its mythological past.  At Athens’ founding it had a king named Erechtheus, who had three daughters that sacrificed themselves that Athens might survive (images below on a Parthenon frieze).  Athens makes an explicit statement, and explicit prayer of hope, that death might come from life with the Parthenon.

Amidst our wondering at the architectural genius of the building and the democratic (and therefore mostly familiar) practices of the Athenians, we forget that the Parthenon was a temple to Athena.  Excavations show that they built the Parthenon on top of an older temple, so clearly the Parthenon was sacred space, and not merely civic space with a civic purpose.

Corinthian_Column_Head_JerashModern eyes miss many such death-life associations in Greece.  For example, look up any article on Corinthian columns and you will likely see something about their fancy, or perhaps excessive, ornamentation.  Certainly Corinthian columns do not fit with Enlightenment sensibilities about classical decorum and proportion — such people always prefer the Ionic column (I prefer the Ionic — to the right — as well so I don’t mean to cast stones).  But Connelly points out that the plants in Corinthian columns hearken back to ancient myths about death and rebirth in their city.  Articles may describe Corinthian columns as “one example of a Greek votive column” (as one site does) without paying any attention at all to the fact that “votive” columns, like votive candles, have a distinctly religious purpose.  It’s almost as if they use the big words to obscure the meaning.  We will have the Greeks be “humanists” by hook or crook.

A fascinating sub-plot is the length Victorian society went to deny that the Parthenon originally was painted.  Evidence after evidence turned up, mostly brushed aside and denied with too much protest.  A painted Parthenon would overturn all of their ideas of classical beauty and classical purity.  Whole artistic theories got erected on an unpainted Parthenon, and they could not let it go.  This in turn clouded their vision in other areas, and allowed false ideas about the Parthenon to persist well into the 20th century.

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Did the Parthenon have no contemporary political meaning?  Perhaps . . . perhaps Pericles wanted to heal the fractious wounds of a prosperous democracy.  Success has never sat well with democracies, and it would make sense that Athens would want to go back to its founding and a story of sacrifice for the common good.  All this rings partially true, but the bulk of the evidence makes the Parthenon an overtly religious shrine — one that seeks life from death.  Plenty of evidence exists that Athenians saw it this way themselves.  For example, during the plague that struck during the Peloponnesian War, sick Athenians came to the Parthenon for refuge, as well as for healing, and possibly, to die.  It would be hard to imagine them doing so if the Parthenon was their equivalent of our Capitol or Washington Monument.

But this interpretation also challenges my own thoughts regarding the Parthenon.  The “humanist” interpretation fit how I tended to see the late 5th century Athenians as essentially worshippers of themselves.  This view gets lots of support from seeing contemporary Athenians mixed with gods on the Parthenon friezes.  With the Parthenon cast in this new light, I think that interpretation gets challenged but not overthrown.  I think other evidence exists for seeing the Athenians as self-worshippers, and perhaps the Parthenon itself still supports that view.  But this will need rethinking on my part.

The lesson of this book is the peril of using history rather than receiving and letting it change you. Self-idolatry is alas, not only confined only to the Greeks, or the Enlightenment and Victorian eras.

Dave

*To be fair, this is actually a pretty good movie . . .

Conversations with Stalin

Some might argue that history constrains us.  Certainly many teenagers keenly feel the question, “Why does it have to be this way?  Why must the world work as it does?”  The dynamism of youth and their imaginations certainly can do wonders for any society.

We may suppose that a world without historical awareness will create a glorious whole new world of possibilities.  But . . . history rather pedantically suggests that the opposite of the case.  Recall the French Revolution, for example.  They remade everything, even their sense of time.  But this confusion and disruption led to terrible tyranny and mass incarceration.  The communist regimes of the 20th century show this same tendency.   Only the most bold would call Soviet-era culture stimulating and full of possibilities.  Their narrowness of vision–a narrowness made possible and even likely by their disrespect to history–created a terrible tyranny.

Many comedians have commented that they no longer wish to perform at many college campuses.  Students in today’s climate seemingly cannot operate with dual levels of reality.  They cannot make distinctions between jokes and real life, assuming a 1-1 correlation of all aspects of reality, a flat world.  Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic wrote that,

Two of the most respected American comedians, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, have discussed the unique problems that comics face on college campuses. In November, Rock told Frank Rich in an interview for New York magazine that he no longer plays colleges, because they’re “too conservative.” He didn’t necessarily mean that the students were Republican; he meant that they were far too eager “not to offend anybody.” In college gigs, he said, “you can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.” Then, in June, Seinfeld reopened the debate—and set off a frenzied round of op-eds—when he said in a radio interview that comics warn him not to “go near colleges—they’re so PC.”

When I attended the convention [The National Association for Campus Activities] in Minneapolis in February, I saw ample evidence of the repressive atmosphere that Rock and Seinfeld described, as well as another, not unrelated factor: the infantilization of the American undergraduate, and this character’s evolving status in the world of higher learning—less a student than a consumer, someone whose whims and affectations (political, sexual, pseudo-intellectual) must be constantly supported and championed. To understand this change, it helps to think of college not as an institution of scholarly pursuit but as the all-inclusive resort that it has in recent years become—and then to think of the undergraduate who drops out or transfers as an early checkout. Keeping hold of that kid for all four years has become a central obsession of the higher-ed-industrial complex. How do you do it? In part, by importing enough jesters and bards to keep him from wandering away to someplace more entertaining, taking his Pell grant and his 529 plan and his student loans with him.

But which jesters, which bards? Ones who can handle the challenge. Because when you put all of these forces together—political correctness, coddling, and the need to keep kids at once amused and unoffended (not to mention the absence of a two-drink minimum and its crowd-lubricating effect)—the black-box theater of an obscure liberal-arts college deep in flyover territory may just be the toughest comedy room in the country.

In the same vein, Alex Tabborok recently commented that,

It has been said that we live in an increasingly divided media universe but on many issues I think we live in an increasingly uniform media universe. Social media is so ubiquitous and the same things sell so widely that I suspect the collective consciousness is less fragmentary than in the past.

I thought of this issue reading transcipt trials of two Soviet authors in the late 1960’s, Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky. The authors were not in trouble for any direct attacks against the state or against communist doctrine per se.  Obviously no writer who valued his safety would write in this way.  The problems with their work lay elsewhere.  Among the issues raised:

  • There are no clear good and bad characters in your stories.  How then can the people understand the story (i.e., the story alienates the masses, which is de-facto anti-communist)?
  • Which characters in the story definitively represent the author’s point of view?  In other words, which character speaks for the author, and which characters serve as foils?

This particular attack assumes that 1) The relationship between characters in the story and the author is always strictly linear and 1-1, and 2) This relationship is necessary for clarity in the story, and 3) Without this clarity, how can we judge if you are a threat to the state or not?

Both authors seemed terribly confused by attacks made against them, pleading “not guilty,” an unusual move in trials of this sort.  They tried to explain basic literary theory of story and character, but to no avail.  Their judges simply couldn’t accept this mental construct.  By definition character’s must express a direct relationship to the author.  Character’s who criticize the state must reflect the author’s mind.  The author’s tried to point out that some of these characters fare badly in the story, but the prosecutors shot back that not all who criticized the state “got their just desserts.”   Here is a brief excerpt from Yuli Daniel’s trial, which begins with the prosecutor reading an excerpt from one of Daniel’s stories:

Prosecutor (reading): “I hate them [referring to those in power] so much I have spasms, I scream, I tremble.”   Well, Daniel, what are we to make of this?

Daniel: That is an epigraph to the character’s thoughts (laughter in the courtroom, Daniel looks around nervously).

Prosecutor: Who is that you hate so?  Who do you want to destroy?

Daniel: To whom are you talking?  To me, or to my character, or to someone else?

Prosecutor: Who is your positive hero?  Who expresses your point of view in the story?

Daniel: I have told you, the story has no entirely positive hero and there doesn’t have to be one.

Prosecutor: Who expresses the author’s credo?

Daniel: The characters do express the author’s thoughts, but only in part.  No single character represents the author.  Maybe [my story is] bad literature, but it is literature, and it doesn’t divide everything into black and white.  . . . The indictment states that I express my ideas “through the mouths of my characters.”  That is a naive accusation, to put it mildly.

Neither author had success discussing the nuance of how stories work.  Both received labor camp sentences of 5-7 years.

In his Conversations with Stalin Milovan Djilas tells of his initial fascination with Stalin and the Soviet Union and his subsequent disenchantment in a few short years.  Many other works give many more details about the horror and oppression in Stalinist Russia.  What made Djilas’ account interesting was that he framed his account not so much in terms of how it all went wrong, but how it managed to work at all.  That is, we know Stalin was bad, but if he was so bad, why did Soviet Russia prosper and gain power, at least in certain ways?

He explores this in different ways.  For example, no one questions that the purges in the military during the 1930’s sacrificed thousands to Stalin’s paranoia, but Djilas had met many of the commanders put in place after the purges, and admitted that they were almost all quite adept, fearless, and devoted.  Naturally, Stalin had his entourage that rarely, if ever, challenged him.  As you would expect, one always had to constantly avoid saying the wrong thing by following keenly the bouncing ball of “official” opinion. But unlike most other autocrats throughout history, Stalin did actual work and remained very well informed.  He could incisively size up personalities in the room and control it with ease.

What struck me most of all, however, was this comment of Djilas:

“The world in which the Soviet leaders lived–and that was my world too–was slowly taking on a new appearance: horrible, unceasing struggle on all sides. Everything was stripped bare and reduced to strife which only changed in form and in which only the stronger and more adroit survived.  Full of admiration for Soviet leaders before this, I now succumbed to a heady enthusiasm for the inexhaustible will and awareness that never left them for a moment.  That was a world in which there was no other choice other than victory or death.”

Perhaps unconsciously, Djilas reveals that Maxism has its roots not in economics, politics, or a new conception of proletarian culture, but in a new religious understanding of the world–a naked struggle for will and power.  It is this elemental understanding of things that can give regimes who build on this faith a concentrated vitality, akin to the power of art in certain barbarian civilizations.*  Perhaps Stalin understood this as well, to great and terrible effect.

Today most of us immediately understand the danger’s of the far-right, perhaps because the far-right has a crystal-clear idea of what they want and express it forcefully.  Many on the far-left, on the other hand–quite prevalent on many campuses today–seem to think that their ideas will lead to a bright, sunlit land where everyone loves everyone else (the far-right has no such plan and no such delusion).  But if you can’t take a joke, you will dramatically narrow your world, after which, you will have nothing to fall-back on other than the paganism of power and will.

Dave

*Though I would love to claim this insight about “barbarian art,” it belongs entirely to the inimitable Kenneth Clark.  He argued that the concentrated narrowness of barbarian civilizations can give their art a certain vitality.

Imagined Communities

Today there is much talk surrounding the idea of the lack of communal identification in America.  We have red states, and blue states, and we bowl alone.  Our kids don’t go outside to play with other neighborhood kids.  We have much to lament.

On the other hand, this social/cultural shift (for our purposes here we’ll assume it’s true) has given us some distance from the whole concept of a “nation.”  Paul Graham has a marvelous post entitled “The Re-fragmentation” in which he discusses the darker side of everyone huddled together around the center.  One could argue that the prime era of nationalism produced an eerie cultural conformity on a scale perhaps not seen since ancient times.

It is this spirit that Benedict Anderson writes Imagined Communities.  The book attempts to tackle how it is that communities71hPv-gXglL called “nations” formed.  At times I thought he drifted into a bit of esotericism, but I found other insights of his incisive and quite helpful.  The first of these insights is in the title itself.  Nations require imagination.  We can understand that those within an immediate geographic proximity could be a community.  We can surmise that those of like-minded belief could find a way to become a community.  But how might I be connected with someone in Oregon with whom I may not share either belief, geography, experience, or culture?  It requires a certain leap of the imagination.

Anderson cites two texts from the fathers of Filipino nationalism to demonstrate how this idea of a national community could be formed.  The first is from Jose Rizal:

Towards the end of October, Don Santiago de los Santos, popularly known as Capitan Tiago, was giving a dinner party.  Although, contrary to his usual practice, he announced it only that afternoon, it was already the subject of every conversation in Binondo, in other quarters of the city, and even in the city of Intramuros.  In those days Capitan Tiago had the reputation of a lavish host.  It was known that his house, like his country, closed his doors to nothing — except to commerce or any new or daring idea.

So the news coursed like an electric shock through the community of parasites, spongers, and gatecrashers, whom God, in His infinite goodness, created, and so tenderly multiplies in Manila.  Some hunted polish for their boots, others looked for collar buttons and cravats.  But one and all were occupied with the problem of how to greet their host with the familiarity required to create the appearance of long-standing friendship, or if need be, to excuse themselves for not having arrived earlier .
The dinner was being given on a house on Anloague Street.  Since we cannot recall the street number, we shall describe it such a way that it may be recognized — that is, if earthquakes have not yet destroyed it.  We do not believe that its owner will have had it torn down, since such work is usually left to God or Nature, which besides, holds many contracts with our Government.  

The second from Marko Kartikromo

It was 7 o’clock Saturday evening; young people in Semarang never at home Saturday night.  On this night, however, no one was about.  Because the heavy day-long rain had made the roads wet and very slippery, all had stayed at home.  

For the workers in shops and offices Saturday morning was a time of anticipation–anticipating their leisure and the fun of walking around the city in the evening, but on this night they were to be disappointed–because of the lethargy created by the bad weather.  The main roads usually crammed with all sorts of traffic, the footpaths usually teeming with people, all were deserted.  Now and then the crack of horse cab’s whip could be heard spurring a horse on its way.

Samerang was deserted.  The light from the gas lamps shone on the shining asphalt road.

A young man was seated on a long rattan lounge reading a newspaper.  He was totally engrossed.  His occasional anger and smiles showed his deep interest in the stories.  He turned the pages of the newspaper, thinking that he might find something to make him feel less miserable.  Suddenly he came upon an article entitled:

PROSPERITY

A destitute vagrant became ill on the side of the road and died of exposure

The report moved the young man.  He could just conjure up the the suffering of the poor soul as he lay dying on the side of the road.  One moment he felt an explosive anger well-up inside.  Another moment he felt pity, and yet again he felt anger at the social system which made some men poor and others rich.

If we contrast these texts with two other famous opening passages (The Iliad, and Pride and Prejudice) we may begin to see why the above texts could be described as “nationalistic.”

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.

And which of the gods was it that set them on to quarrel? It was the son of Jove and Leto; for he was angry with the king and sent a pestilence upon the host to plague the people, because the son of Atreus had dishonoured Chryses his priest. Now Chryses had come to the ships of the Achaeans to free his daughter, and had brought with him a great ransom: moreover he bore in his hand the sceptre of Apollo wreathed with a suppliant’s wreath and he besought the Achaeans, but most of all the two sons of Atreus, who were their chiefs.

“Sons of Atreus,” he cried, “and all other Achaeans, may the gods who dwell in Olympus grant you to sack the city of Priam, and to reach your homes in safety; but free my daughter, and accept a ransom for her, in reverence to Apollo, son of Jove.”

On this the rest of the Achaeans with one voice were for respecting the priest and taking the ransom that he offered; but not so Agamemnon, who spoke fiercely to him and sent him roughly away. “Old man,” said he, “let me not find you tarrying about our ships, nor yet coming hereafter. Your sceptre of the god and your wreath shall profit you nothing. I will not free her. She shall grow old in my house at Argos far from her own home, busying herself with her loom and visiting my couch; so go, and do not provoke me or it shall be the worse for you.”

The old man feared him and obeyed. Not a word he spoke, but went by the shore of the sounding sea and prayed apart to King Apollo whom lovely Leto had borne. “Hear me,” he cried, “O god of the silver bow, that protects Chryse and holy Cilla and rulest Tenedos with thy might, hear me oh thou of Sminthe. If I have ever decked your temple with garlands, or burned your thigh-bones in fat of bulls or goats, grant my prayer, and let your arrows avenge these my tears upon the Danaans.”

Thus did he pray, and Apollo heard his prayer. He came down furious from the summits of Olympus, with his bow and his quiver upon his shoulder, and the arrows rattled on his back with the rage that trembled within him. He sat himself down away from the ships with a face as dark as night, and his silver bow rang death as he shot his arrow in the midst of them. First he smote their mules and their hounds, but presently he aimed his shafts at the people themselves, and all day long the pyres of the dead were burning.

******

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

“Do you not want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.

You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”

This was invitation enough.

“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it, that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”

If we consider the idea that nations are primarily imagined communities we can examine the texts.

The first two texts . . .

  • Conjure up a sense of belonging to a particular place.  The reader may not know the locations described in experience but can imagine being there.
  • Establish a connection between the large groups of people in the story, despite the fact that these people do not know each other — note that in the second text the man feels a connection to the vagrant though they had never met.
  • Presuppose an almost jocular familiarity with the the concept of a “nation.”

But neither The Illiad or Pride and Prejudice do any of these things.  The reader gets dropped into a world that is not theirs, and neither author shows much concern to make it so.  The reader observes the story, but does not participate in the story.  If we consider Austen one of the primary literary voices of her day, we can surmise that the transition to considering “nations” as communities is quite recent.  C.S. Lewis commented that the world of Austen and Homer had much more in common with each other, despite their 2500 year separation, than his world and Austen’s, despite the mere 150 year time difference.^

Too many causes exist for this momentous shift to consider them here.  Anderson focuses on a couple, however, worth considering.

As mentioned above, one can have a sense of community based on physical proximity.  Anderson’s brilliance is to focus on the idea of “imagination” creating this sense of community.  We must always realize, then, in the essential unreality of nationhood, a subject to which we will return.  But Anderson also shows the concrete foundation for the myth of nationality.

Ideologically the idea of equality had to arise before the idea of nationality had a chance.  But the idea of equality needed fertile soil, and Anderson names “print-capitalism” as one primary ingredient.  With the Enlightenment came the idea of rational standardization of measurement (of distance, time, weight, etc.) and language.

The printed book, kept a permanent form, capable of infinite reproduction, temporally and spatially.  It was no longer subject to the ‘unconsciously modernizing’ habits of monastic scribes.  Thus, while 12th century French differed markedly from that written by Villon in the 15th, the rate of change slowed markedly by the in the 16th.  ‘By the end of the 17th century languages in Europe had generally assumed their modern forms.’

Capitalism too played its part.  “In the Middle Ages,” commented Umberto Eco, “one did not ‘make money.’  You either had money or you didn’t.”  Today we hear a great deal about the inequalities of capitalism.  But capitalism helped produced a society in which the vast majority of people can share in common experiences though common consumption.*  The mass production made possible by political unification helped create mass consumption, and so one hand washes the other.  Capitalism and print media together created the newspaper, which formed the ‘daily liturgy’ of the national community.

So to what extent can we say that “nations” have value?  One student of mine refused to take the bait and argued bluntly (but effectively) that “they seem to be doing pretty well so far.”  Ross Douthat writes,

The nation-state is real, and (thus far) irreplaceable. Yes, the world of nations is full of arbitrary borders, invented traditions, and convenient mythologies layered atop histories of plunder and pillage. And yes, not every government or polity constitutes a nation (see Iraq, or Belgium, or half of Africa). But as guarantors of public order and personal liberty, as sources of meaning and memory and solidarity, as engines of common purpose in the service of the common good, successful nation-states offer something that few of the transnational institutions or organizations bestriding our globalized world have been able to supply. (The arguable exception of Roman Catholicism is, I fear, only arguable these days.) So amid trends that tend to weaken, balkanize or dissolve nation-states, it should not be assumed that a glorious alternative awaits us if we hurry that dissolution to its end.

I agree that the effectiveness of nations vis a vis other forms of organization is at least arguable.**  I agree with Douthat that the premature burial of  “nations” before their time, with nothing ready to replace it, would be silly at best.  But . . . Anderson’s work reminds us that we live in purely imagined communities.  They exist not in reality, but for expediency, a product of contingent historical circumstances.

The question remains — will their imaginary existence, like that of the zero, prove so valuable that they will last far into the future?  We can see the challenge posed to them already by the internet, globalization, and political polarization.  We shall see how strong our imaginations can be in the next generation or two.

Dave

*I do not suggest that defining ourselves through consumption is a good thing in itself, merely that consumerism has had this particular impact.

**In brief, we might say that the birth of nations was bloody (ca. 1800-1871), with the next generation settling into a relative peace.  But the first half of the 20th century was catastrophically destructive, with a moderately peaceful era to follow.  For whatever it’s worth, the possibly waning age of “nations” — ca. 1970’s – present, has been a period of steadily decreasing world violence.

^M.I. Finley makes an interesting connection between the two eras in his classic, The World of Odysseus.  Finley looks at Achilles’ comment in Hades and draws an unexpected conclusion.  Achilles seems to state that he would rather be a “thes” on earth than king in Hades.  Most translations assume that “thes” means “slave,” but Finley argues that the best translation would mean something like, “unattached free small landholder.”  This, and not slavery, was the worst fate Achilles could imagine.

This reminds me of a part in the Gwyenth Paltrow Emma movie where Emma disdains the independent farmer.  “He has no society, no information.”  We get another confirmation of the role capitalism and the concept of “equality” played in the creation of nations.

The Hitler Salute

I picked up Tillman Allert’s The Hitler Salute: On the Meaning of a Gesture primarily because I wondered why the infamous gesture could catch on so fast.

Two years after the Nazis took over a book of manners got published which listed and illustrated different forms of proper greetings.  Granted, the Nazi salute of outstretched arm with the accompanying “Heil Hitler!” got pride of place.  But the book also gave fourteen other accepted and traditional greetings, including handshakes, formal bows, hugs, curtsies, and kisses.  But a few years later, as one young German named Helga Hartmann recalled, things had changed:

I was five years old and my grandmother sent me and my cousin . . . to the post office to buy stamps.  . . . We went in and said, “Good morning.”  The post-office lady scowled at us and sent us back outside with the words, “Don’t come back until you’ve learned your manners.”  We exchanged glances and didn’t know what we had done wrong.  My cousin thought maybe we should have knocked, so we knocked and said, “Good morning” again.  At that point, the post-office lady took us back outside and showed us that the proper German greeting when entering a public building was a salute to the Fuhrer.  That’s my memory of “Heil Hitler!” and it has stayed with me to this day.

I firmly believe in the power of tradition over time, and the peril societies court when they chuck it wholesale.  It should never work.  And yet, it some sense the Nazi’s utter abandonment of many very basic social customs “worked” for a time.  With obvious exceptions (see the photo below), an entire society changed its form of greeting in an historical blink of an eye.

Allert’s book helped answer my question, but he spends most of his time discussing the sociological aspects of personal greetings, and this proved a welcome surprise for me–though I should have guessed it from the title.

Understanding both the greeting and its rapid ascent we need to see Germany in context.  German culture has a long history, but not the German nation.  As a distinct political entity “Germany” did not exist until 1871.  For centuries the patchwork collection of provinces and principalities had been the happy hunting grounds of older states such as France, Austria, and even Russia.  In the mid-18th century Prussia emerged in its own right largely thanks to its military and somewhat autocratic kings.  But it took both the Industrial Revolution and Bismarck a full century after this to unite Germany under Prussian political guidance.

Bismarck had certain key goals in German unification.  Above all he wanted to avoid uniting Germany along democratic lines. Each major leap forward in the process of unification happened because of wars–the application of force.  After Prussia won the Danish War, the Austro-Prussian War, the Franco-Prussian War, Germany lost W.W. I. The Versailles Treaty only added to Germany’s humiliation and frustration at the terms of the peace, their geo-political “encirclement,” and so on.  The lackluster Weimar Republic and the accompanying degradation (real or perceived) of German culture fueled the desire to reaffirm German unity.  The push for a universal German greeting began in earnest.

Allert directs our attention to the nature of greetings themselves.  Even a simple “hello” invites someone into a personal space, and creates the possibility of more/deeper personal relationships.  Almost all social greetings have this character.  We request that others allow us into their world as we invite them into our own.

“Heil Hitler!” functions much differently.  It demands rather than invites, and here we see a link back to the means of German unification itself under Bismarck.  Germany became Germany due to force and political manipulation.  Now the “German” greeting will bring social unity in the same way–by force.   Allert astutely points out that “Heil Hitler” cannot even be called a personal greeting, as it involves no personal contact (as a handshake) and no sign of individual respect (as a bow or curtsy).  It immediately makes a division between the abstract mass of those who support the regime and the undefinable minority of those who do not.*

Perhaps this helps explain why the new “greeting” caught on so quickly.  It is not a greeting at all.  We can imagine the awkwardness of switching from saying, “Hello,” to “A merry-jolly day to you,” or something along those lines.  It probably wouldn’t stick.  But if we had to stand on one leg and look at the ground instead instead of saying “hello,” maybe that might have a better chance?

“Heil Hitler” shares much in common with other aspects of Nazi life.  Just as this “greeting” is not really a greeting, so too the goose-step march is not really a march.  Both de-personalize and therefore dehumanize life.  This clues us in that the Nazi’s cared not so much for “Germany,” or their warped idea of purity, but ultimately about their perverted idea of the so-called beauty in death.  Their desire to raise the stakes of a personal greeting speaks of the nihilism at the bottom of their philosophy (which Father Seraphim Rose alludes to in his brief article below).

Dave

*In their recollections many recalled that they could always tell where their teachers stood in relation to the regime by how they “greeted” the students with the obligatory “Heil Hitler!” at the start of class.  None (I presume) could have taught without saying it.  But some teachers always looked for ways around the full measure of obligation.  One remembered that a particular teacher always walked in the door carrying large stacks of papers under his arms, making it “impossible” for him to raise his arm as he likely said “Heil Hitler.” Another entered invariably with a piece of chalk in his hand already.  He would raise his arm to begin writing on the board, then turn to the class and say “Heil Hitler” with his right arm still lingering on the chalkboard.  I have much sympathy with these teachers, whatever their circumstances might have been.

This, however, is a better epitaph . . .

 

From Seraphim Rose . . .

The chief intellectual impetus for Vitalism has been a rejection of the realist/scientific view of the world, which simplifies things and “dries them out” of any emotional life.  Unfortunately, however much the Vitalist might yearn for the ‘spiritual’ or the ‘mystical,’ he will never look to Christian truth to fulfill this need, for Christianity for them is as ‘outdated’ for him as the most dedicated rationalist.  

The Christian truth which the Enlightenment undermined and rationalism attacked is no mere philosophy, but the Source, the Truth of life and salvation, and once there begins among the multitude a conviction that Christianity no longer remains credible, the result will be not an urbane skepticism imagined by the Enlightenment, but a spiritual catastrophe of enormous dimensions, one whose effect will make itself felt in every area of life and thought.

Towards the end of the 19th century, a restlessness and desperation had begun to steal into the hearts of a select few of Europe’s intellectual elite.  This restlessness has been the chief psychological impetus for Vitalism; it forms the raw material that demagogues and craftsmen of human hearts may play upon.

Fascist and National Socialist regimes show us what happens when such craftsmen utilize this restlessness for their own purposes.   It may seem strange to some that such restlessness would manifest itself in places that had reached the seeming pinnacle of human cultural and political achievement, but such manifestations should not surprise us . . . .

Perhaps the most striking examples of this unrest manifest themselves in juvenile crime.  Gangs roam about and have senseless wars with each other, and to what purpose?  Such criminals come from the “best” elements of society just as from the “worst.”  When questioned, such people talk of boredom, confusion, an unidentified “urge” to commit these acts.   No rational motive appears for their actions.

There are other less violent forms this unrest takes.  In our own time we see a passion for movement and speed, expressed especially in the cult of the automobile (we have already noted this passion in Hitler), and in our adulation of athletes.  Add to this the universal appeal of television, movies, videos, which mainly serve to distract us and allow us to escape from reality both by their eclectic and “exciting” subject matter and the hypnotic effect of the media themselves; the prevalence of sexual promiscuity, being another form of the “experimental” attitude so encouraged by the arts and sciences.

In such phenomena “activity” serves as an escape–an escape from boredom, meaninglessness, and most profoundly from the emptiness that takes possession of the heart that has abandoned God and refuses to know their own selves.

In politics, the most successful forms of this impulse have Mussolini’s cult of action and violence, and Hitler’s darker cult of “blood and soil.”   Vitalism, in its quest for life, smells of Death [and indeed leads to death].  The last 100 years have shown a world-weariness and its prophets have declared the end of the Christian west.  Beyond Vitalism there can only be the Nihilism of destruction.  Nazism itself had this function.  Joseph Goebbels wrote,

The bomb-terror spares neither the rich nor poor; before the labor offices of total war the last class barriers have had to come down . . . . Together with the monuments of culture there crumble also the last obstacles to the fulfillment of our revolutionary task.  Now that everything is in ruins, we are forced to rebuild Europe.  In trying to destroy us, the enemy has only succeeded in smashing its own past, and with that, everything outworn and old has gone.