Archive for December, 2009

The Truce of God

December 25th, 2009

This is a syndicated post, originally from Pro Libertate.

(This essay was originally published in The New American magazine.)

In August 1914, Europe's major powers threw themselves into war with gleeful abandon. Germany, a rising power with vast aspirations, plowed across Belgium, seeking to checkmate France quickly before Russia could mobilize, thereby averting the prospect of a two-front war. Thousands of young Germans, anticipating a six-week conflict, boarded troop trains singing the optimistic refrain: "Ausflug nach Paris. Auf Widersehen auf dem Boulevard." ("Excursion to Paris. See you again on the Boulevard.")

The French were eager to avenge the loss of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany in 1870. The British government, leery of Germany's growing power, mobilized hundreds of thousands of young men to "teach the Hun a lesson." Across the continent, writes British historian Simon Rees, "millions of servicemen, reservists and volunteers ... rushed enthusiastically to the banners of war.... The atmosphere was one of holiday rather than conflict."

Each side expected to be victorious by Christmas. But as December dawned, the antagonists found themselves mired along the Western Front – a static line of trenches running for hundreds of miles through France and Belgium. At some points along the Front, combatants were separated by less than 100 feet. Their crude redoubts were little more than large ditches scooped out of miry, whitish-gray soil. Ill-equipped for winter, soldiers slogged through brackish water that was too cold for human comfort, but too warm to freeze.

The unclaimed territory designated No Man's Land was littered with the awful residue of war – expended ammunition and the lifeless bodies of those on whom the ammunition had been spent. The mortal remains of many slain soldiers could be found grotesquely woven into barbed wire fences. Villages and homes lay in ruins. Abandoned churches had been appropriated for use as military bases.

As losses mounted and the stalemate hardened, war fever began to dissipate on both sides. Many of those pressed into service on the Western Front had not succumbed to the initial frenzy of bloodlust. Fighting alongside French, Belgian, and English troops were Hindus and Sikhs from India, as well as Gurkhas from the Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal.

These colonial conscripts had been transported from their native soil and deployed in trenches carved out of wintry Belgian cabbage patches. Highland Scots were also found at the Front, proudly wearing their kilts in defiance of the bitter December cold.

The German troops were led by elite Prussian officers, representatives of the bellicose Junker aristocracy. The German rank and file included Bavarian, Saxon, Westphalian, and Hessian reservists, more than a few of whom had lived – or even been born – in England and spoke perfect English. Bismarck's efforts to unite the scattered German principalities notwithstanding, many German troops remained more attached to their local communities than to what for them was an abstract German nation.

Comrades at Arms

Wallowing in what amounted to cold, fetid sewers, pelted by freezing rain, and surrounded by the decaying remains of their comrades, soldiers on both sides grimly maintained their military discipline. On December 7, Pope Benedict XV called for a Christmas cease-fire. This suggestion earned little enthusiasm from political and military leaders on both sides. But the story was different for the exhausted frontline troops.

A December 4 dispatch from the commander of the British II Corps took disapproving notice of a "live-and-let-live theory of life" that had descended on the Front. Although little overt fraternization was seen between hostile forces, just as little initiative was shown in pressing potential advantages. Neither side fired at the other during meal times, and friendly comments were frequently bandied about across No Man's Land. In a letter published by the Edinburgh Scotsman, Andrew Todd of the Royal Engineers reported that soldiers along his stretch of the Front, "only 60 yards apart at one place ... [had become] very 'pally' with each other."

Rather than flinging lead at their opponents, the troops would occasionally hurl newspapers (weighted with stones) and ration tins across the lines. Barrages of insults sometimes erupted as well, but they were delivered "generally with less venom than a couple of London cabbies after a mild collision," reported Leslie Walkinton of the Queen's Westminster Rifles.

As December waxed, the combat ardor of the frontline troops waned. With Christmas approaching, the scattered and infrequent gestures of goodwill across enemy lines increased. About a week before Christmas, German troops near Armentieres slipped a "splendid" chocolate cake across the lines to their British counterparts. Attached to that delectable peace offering was a remarkable invitation:

We propose having a concert tonight as it is our Captain's birthday, and we cordially invite you to attend – provided you will give us your word of honor as guests that you agree to cease hostilities between 7:30 and 8:30.... When you see us light the candles and footlights at the edge of our trench at 7:30 sharp you can safely put your heads above your trenches, and we shall do the same, and begin the concert.

The concert proceeded on time, with the bewhiskered German troops singing "like Christy Minstrels," according to one eyewitness account. Each song earned enthusiastic applause from the British troops, prompting a German to invite the Tommies to "come mit us into the chorus." One British soldier boldly shouted, "We'd rather die than sing German." This jibe was parried instantly with a good-natured reply from the German ranks: "It would kill us if you did." The concert ended with an earnest rendition of "Die Wacht am Rhein," and was closed with a few shots deliberately aimed at the darkening skies – a signal that the brief pre-Christmas respite was ended.

Elsewhere along the Front, arrangements were worked out to retrieve fallen soldiers and give them proper treatment or burial.

In a letter to his mother, Lt. Geoffrey Heinekey of the 2nd Queen's Westminster Rifles described one such event that took place on December 19. "Some Germans came out and held up their hands and began to take in some of their wounded and so we ourselves immediately got out of our trenches and began bringing in our wounded also," he recalled. "The Germans then beckoned to us and a lot of us went over and talked to them and they helped us to bury our dead. This lasted the whole morning and I talked to several of them and I must say they seemed extraordinarily fine men.... It seemed too ironical for words. There, the night before we had been having a terrific battle and the morning after, there we were smoking their cigarettes and they smoking ours."

Football in No Man's Land

Soon talk along the Front turned to the prospect of a formal cessation of hostilities in honor of Christmas. Again, this idea met resistance from above. Comments historian Stanley Weintraub, in his book, Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce:

Most higher-ups had looked the other way when scattered fraternization occurred earlier. A Christmas truce, however, was another matter. Any slackening in the action during Christmas week might undermine whatever sacrificial spirit there was among troops who lacked ideological fervor. Despite the efforts of propagandists, German reservists evidenced little hate. Urged to despise the Germans, [British] Tommies saw no compelling interest in retrieving French and Belgian crossroads and cabbage patches. Rather, both sides fought as soldiers fought in most wars – for survival, and to protect the men who had become extended family.

In a sense, the war itself was being waged within an extended family, since both Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II and England's King George V were grandsons of Queen Victoria. More importantly, the warring nations were all part of what had once been known as Christendom. The irony of this fact was not lost on those sentenced to spend Christmas at the Front.

By Christmas Eve, the German side of the Front was radiant with glowing Tannenbeume – small Christmas trees set up, sometimes under fire, by troops determined to commemorate the holy day. "For most British soldiers, the German insistence on celebrating Christmas was a shock after the propaganda about Teutonic bestiality, while the Germans had long dismissed the British as well as the French as soulless and materialistic and incapable of appreciating the festival in the proper spirit," writes Weintraub. "Regarded by the French and British as pagans – even savages – the pragmatic Germans were not expected to risk their lives on behalf of each beloved Tannenbaum. Yet when a few were felled by Scrooge-like gunfire, the Saxons opposite the [British line] stubbornly climbed the parapets to set the endangered trees up once more."

The radiant Christmas trees reminded some Indian conscripts of lanterns used to celebrate the Hindu "Festival of Lights." Some of them must have been puzzled over finding themselves freezing, undernourished, and confronting a lonely death thousands of miles from their homes as soldiers in a war which pitted Christian nations against each other. "Do not think that this is war," wrote one Punjabi soldier in a letter to a relative. "This is not war. It is the ending of the world."

But there were souls on each side of that fratricidal conflict determined to preserve the decencies of Christendom, even amid the conflict. As Christmas dawned, German Saxon troops shouted greetings to the British unit across from it: "A happy Christmas to you, Englishmen!" That welcome greeting prompted a mock-insulting reply from one of the Scottish troops, who was mildly irritated at being called an Englishman: "The same to you Fritz, but dinna o'er eat youself wi' they sausages!"

A sudden cold snap had left the battlefield frozen, which was actually a relief for troops wallowing in sodden mire. Along the Front, troops extracted themselves from their trenches and dugouts, approaching each other warily, and then eagerly, across No Man's Land. Greetings and handshakes were exchanged, as were gifts scavenged from care packages sent from home. German souvenirs that ordinarily would have been obtained only through bloodshed – such as spiked pickelhaube helmets, or Gott mit uns belt buckles – were bartered for similar British trinkets. Carols were sung in German, English, and French. A few photographs were taken of British and German officers standing alongside each other, unarmed, in No Man's Land.

Near the Ypres salient, Germans and Scotsmen chased after wild hares that, once caught, served as an unexpected Christmas feast. Perhaps the sudden exertion of chasing wild hares prompted some of the soldiers to think of having a football match. Then again, little prompting would have been necessary to inspire young, competitive men – many of whom were English youth recruited off soccer fields – to stage a match. In any case, numerous accounts in letters and journals attest to the fact that on Christmas 1914, German and English soldiers played soccer on the frozen turf of No Man's Land.

British Field Artillery Lieutenant John Wedderburn-Maxwell described the event as "probably the most extraordinary event of the whole war – a soldier's truce without any higher sanction by officers and generals...."

This isn't to say that the event met with unqualified approval. Random exchanges of gunfire along the Front offered lethal reminders that the war was still underway.

From his rearward position behind the lines, a "gaunt, sallow soldier with a thick, dark mustache and hooded eyes" witnessed the spontaneous eruption of Christian fellowship with hateful contempt. The German Field Messenger of Austrian birth heaped scorn on his comrades who were exchanging Christmas greetings with their British counterparts. "Such a thing should not happen in wartime," groused Corporal Adolf Hitler. "Have you no German sense of honor left at all?" "More than patriotic scruples were involved" in Hitler's reaction, notes Weintraub. "Although a baptized Catholic, he rejected every vestige of religious observance while his unit marked the day in the cellar of the Messines monastery."

What If ...?

In a January 2, 1915 account of the Christmas Truce, the London Daily Mirror reflected that "the gospel of hate" had lost its allure to soldiers who had come to know each other.

"The soldier's heart rarely has any hatred in it," commented the paper. "He goes out to fight because that is his job. What came before – the causes of the war and the why and wherefore – bother him little. He fights for his country and against his country's enemies. Collectively, they are to be condemned and blown to pieces. Individually, he knows they're not bad sorts."

"Many British and German soldiers, and line officers, viewed each other as gentlemen and men of honor," writes Weintraub. The rank and file came to understand that the man on the other end of the rifle, rather than the soulless monster depicted in ideological propaganda, was frightened and desperate to survive and return to his family. For many along the Front, these realities first became clear in the light cast by the German Tannenbaum.

In the shared symbol of the Christmas tree – an ornament of pagan origins appropriated by Christians centuries ago – British and German troops found "a sudden and extraordinary link," observed British author Arthur Conan Doyle after the war (a conflict that claimed his son's life). "It was an amazing spectacle," Doyle reflected, "and must arouse bitter thought concerning the high-born conspirators against the peace of the world, who in their mad ambition had hounded such men on to take each other by the throat rather than by the hand."

In a remarkable letter published by The Times of London on January 4, a German soldier stated that "as the wonderful scenes in the trenches [during Christmas] show, there is no malice on our side, and none in many of those who have been marshaled against us." But this was certainly not true of those who orchestrated the war, the "high-born conspirators against the peace of the world." As British historian Niall Ferguson points out, the war-makers' plans for the world required "Maximum slaughter at minimum expense."

The informal truce held through Christmas and, at some points along the Front, through the following day (known as "Boxing Day" to British troops). But before New Year's Day the war had resumed in all of its malignant fury, and the suicide of Christendom continued apace.

Most wars are senseless exercises in mass murder and needless destruction. World War I, however, is remarkable not only for being more avoidable and less justifiable than most wars, but also for its role in opening the gates of hell. Mass starvation and economic ruin inflicted on Germany during the war and its aftermath cultivated the National Socialist (Nazi) movement. Nearly identical ruin wrought in Russia thrust Lenin and the Bolsheviks to power. Benito Mussolini, a socialist agitator once regarded as Lenin's heir, rose to power in Italy. Radical variants of intolerant totalitarian nationalism ulcerated Europe. The seeds of future wars and terrorism were deeply sewn in the Middle East.

What if the Christmas Truce of 1914 had held? Might a negotiated peace have ensued, preserving Christendom for at least a while longer? We do not know. It is doubtful that the "high-born conspirators against the peace of the world" would have been long deterred in pursuing their demented plans. But the truce – a welcome fermata in the symphony of destruction – illustrated a timeless truth of the nature of the human soul as designed by its Creator.

Reflecting on the Christmas Truce, Scottish historian Roland Watson writes: "The State bellows the orders 'Kill! Maim! Conquer!' but a deeper instinct within the individual does not readily put a bullet through another who has done no great offense, but who rather says with them, 'What am I doing here?'"

For a tragically short time, the Spirit of the Prince of Peace drowned out the murderous demands of the State.



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Dona nobis pacem

[Read the original at Pro Libertate (2009-12-25)...]

Hark, a Vagrant: Montcalm

December 16th, 2009

This is a syndicated post, originally from Hark, A Vagrant!.

[Read the original at Hark, A Vagrant! (2009-12-16)...]

The Atrocity of Hope, Part 7: Our Ignoble Laureate

December 11th, 2009

This is a syndicated post, originally from Austro-Athenian Empire.

So our President Incarnate, his hands dripping (metaphorically – I’m sure he washes them regularly) with the blood of Pakistani and Afghan children, along with shredded bits of the principles of Nuremberg, jets off to Norway to accept a prize that is supposed to be awarded only to those who have worked for “the abolition or reduction of standing armies.”


There, having given Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King a patronisingly dismissive pat on the head, he adds: “But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation [Note: clearly he must have taken some secret version of the oath of office, because that’s not what the public one says], I cannot be guided by their examples alone.” And then he has the effrontery to propound a bizarro version of history in which, “for more than six decades,” the united states has “brought stability,” “helped underwrite global security,” “enabled democracy to take hold,” and “promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea.” (I suppose this would be an example of the u.s. promoting peace and prosperity in Korea.)

And as if all that weren’t audacity enough, he has the nerve to tell an audience of Scandinavians that “a non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies.”

That’s right: the president of the country that turned away Jews who were attempting to escape the Holocaust belittles the accomplishments of the people who actually saved their Jews from Hitler’s goons through the use of nonviolent resistance. As Bryan Caplan reminds us:

Danish, Norwegian, and Dutch resistance to Nazism from 1940 to 1945 was pronounced and fairly successful. In Norway, for example, teachers refused to promote fascism in the schools. For this, the Nazis imprisoned a thousand teachers. But, the remaining teachers stood firm, giving anti-fascist instruction to children and teaching in their homes. This policy made the pro-fascist Quisling government so unpopular that it eventually released all of the imprisoned teachers and dropped its attempt to dominate the schools. … In Copenhagen, Danes used a general strike to liberalize martial law. …

But, surely the most amazing but widely neglected case of nonviolent resistance against Nazi Germany was the protection of Jews and other persecuted minorities from deportation, imprisonment, and murder. … Gene Sharp shows how the nations which nonviolently resisted National Socialist racial persecutions saved almost all of their Jews, while Jews in other Nazi-controlled nations were vastly more likely to be placed in concentration camps and killed. The effort to arrest Norway’s seventeen hundred Jews sparked internal resistance and protest resignations; most of the Norwegian Jews fled to Sweden. … When Himmler tried to crack down on Danish Jews, the Danes thwarted his efforts. Not only did the Danish government and people resist – through bureaucratic slowdowns and noncooperation – but, surprisingly, the German commander in Denmark also refused to help organize Jewish deportations. This prompted Himmler to import special troops to arrest Jews. But, in the end almost all Danish Jews escaped unharmed. …

The omnipresent pattern … is that totalitarian governments are not omnipotent. They need the cooperation of the ruled to exert their will. If a people denies cooperation, even a government as vicious as Hitler’s, bound by few moral constraints, might be unable to get what it wants.
(The Literature of Nonviolent Resistance and Civilian-Based Defense)

Then after collecting his prize and insulting the givers, Obama jets away again, snubbing the traditional ceremonies. Note to Scandinavia: don’t give our president any more prizes. Really. You don’t need to stay in this abusive relationship.

[Read the original at Austro-Athenian Empire (2009-12-11)...]

The strange consensus on Obama’s Nobel address

December 11th, 2009

This is a syndicated post, originally from Glenn Greenwald.

(updated below - Update II - Update III)

Reactions to Obama's Nobel speech yesterday were remarkably consistent across the political spectrum, and there were two points on which virtually everyone seemed to agree:   (1) it was the most explicitly pro-war speech ever delivered by anyone while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize; and (2) it was the most comprehensive expression of Obama's foreign policy principles since he became President.  I don't think he can be blamed for the first fact; when the Nobel Committee chose him despite his waging two wars and escalating one, it essentially forced on him the bizarre circumstance of using his acceptance speech to defend the wars he's fighting.  What else could he do?  Ignore the wars?  Repent?

I'm more interested in the fact that the set of principles Obama articulated yesterday was such a clear and comprehensive expression of his foreign policy that it's now being referred to as the "Obama Doctrine."  About that matter, there are two arguably confounding facts to note:  (1) the vast majority of leading conservatives -- from Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich to Peggy Noonan, Sarah Palin, various Kagans and other assorted neocons -- have heaped enthusiastic praise on what Obama said yesterday, i.e., on the Obama Doctrine; and (2) numerous liberals have done exactly the same.  That convergence gives rise to a couple of questions:  

Why are the Bush-following conservatives who ran the country for the last eight years and whose foreign policy ideas are supposedly so discredited  -- including some of the nation's hardest-core neocons -- finding so much to cheer in the so-called Obama Doctrine?   How could liberals and conservatives -- who have long claimed to possess such vehemently divergent and irreconcilable worldviews on foreign policy -- both simultaneously adore the same comprehensive expression of foreign policy?

Let's dispense first with several legitimate caveats.  Like all good politicians, Obama is adept at paying homage to multiple, inconsistent views at once, enabling everyone to hear whatever they want in what he says while blissfully ignoring the rest.  Additionally, conservatives have an interest in claiming that Obama has embraced Bush/Cheney policies even when he hasn't, because it allows them to claim vindication ("see, now that Obama gets secret briefings, he realizes we were right all along").  Moreover, there are foreign policies Obama has pursued that are genuinely disliked by neocons -- from negotiating with Iran to applying some mild pressure on Israel to the use of more conciliatory and humble rhetoric.  And one of the most radical and controversial aspects of the Bush presidency -- the attack on Iraq -- was not defended by Obama, nor was the underlying principle that produced it ("preventive" war).

But all that said, it's easy to understand why even intellectually honest conservatives -- including neocons -- found so much to like in "the Obama Doctrine," at least as it found expression yesterday.  With the one caveat that Obama omitted a defense of the Iraq War, the generally Obama-supportive Kevin Drum put it this way:

I really don't think neocons have much to complain about even if Obama didn't use the opportunity to announce construction of a new generation of nuclear missiles or something. Given that he was, after all, accepting a peace prize, it was a surprisingly robust defense of war and America's military role in the world. Surprisingly Bushian, really . . .

Indeed, Obama insisted upon what he called the "right" to wage wars "unilaterally"; articulated a wide array of circumstances in which war is supposedly "just" far beyond being attacked or facing imminent attack by another country; explicitly rejected the non-violence espoused by King and Gandhi as too narrow and insufficiently pragmatic for a Commander-in-Chief like Obama to embrace; endowed us with the mission to use war as a means of combating "evil"; and hailed the U.S. for underwriting global security for the last six decades (without mentioning how our heroic efforts affected, say, the people of Vietnam, or Iraq, or Central America, or Gaza, and so many other places where "security" is not exactly what our wars "underwrote").  So it's not difficult to see why Rovian conservatives are embracing his speech; so much of it was devoted to an affirmation of their core beliefs.

The more difficult question to answer is why -- given what Drum described -- so many liberals found the speech so inspiring and agreeable?  Is that what liberals were hoping for when they elected Obama:  someone who would march right into Oslo and proudly announce to the world that we have a unilateral right to wage war when we want and to sing the virtues of war as a key instrument for peace?  As Tom Friedman put it on CNN yesterday: "He got into their faces . . . I'm for getting into the Europeans' face."  Is that what we needed more of?

Yesterday's speech and the odd, extremely bipartisan reaction to it underscored one of the real dangers of the Obama presidency:  taking what had been ideas previously discredited as Republican or right-wing dogma and transforming them into bipartisan consensus.  It's not just Republicans but Democrats that are now vested in -- and eager to justify -- the virtues of war, claims of Grave Danger posed by Islamic radicals and the need to use massive military force to combat them, indefinite detention, military commissions, extreme secrecy, full-scale immunity for government lawbreaking, and so many other doctrines once purportedly despised by Democrats but now defended by them because their leader has embraced them.  

That's exactly the process that led former Bush DOJ official Jack Goldsmith to giddily explain that Obama has actually done more to legitimize Bush/Cheney "counter-terrorism" policies than Bush and Cheney themselves -- because he made them bipartisan -- and Yale Law Professor Jack Balkin made the same point to The New York Times' Charlie Savage back in July:

In any case, Jack Balkin, a Yale Law School professor, said Mr. Obama’s ratification of the basic outlines of the surveillance and detention policies he inherited would reverberate for generations. By bestowing bipartisan acceptance on them, Mr. Balkin said, Mr. Obama is consolidating them as entrenched features of government. "What we are watching," Mr. Balkin said, "is a liberal, centrist, Democratic version of the construction of these same governing practices."

Most of the neocons celebrating Obama's speech yesterday made exactly that point in one way or another:  if even this Democratic President, beloved by liberals, announces to the world that we have the unilateral right to wage war and that doing so creates Peace and crushes Evil, and does so at a Nobel Peace Prize ceremony of all places, doesn't that end the argument for good?

Much of the liberal praise for Obama's speech yesterday focused on how eloquent, sophisticated, nuanced, complex, philosophical, contemplative and intellectual it was.  And, looked at a certain way, it was all of those things -- like so many Obama speeches are.  After eight years of enduring a President who spoke in simplistic Manichean imperatives and bullying decrees, many liberals are understandably joyous over having a President who uses their language and the rhetorical approach that resonates with them.

But that's the real danger.  Obama puts a pretty, intellectual, liberal face on some ugly and decidedly illiberal polices.  Just as George Bush's Christian-based moralizing let conservatives feel good about America regardless of what it does, Obama's complex and elegiac rhetoric lets many liberals do the same.  To red state Republicans, war and its accompanying instruments (secrecy, executive power, indefinite detention) felt so good and right when justified by swaggering, unapologetic toughness and divinely-mandated purpose; to blue state Democrats, all of that feels just as good when justified by academic meditations on "just war" doctrine and when accompanied by poetic expressions of sorrow and reluctance.  When you combine the two rhetorical approaches, what you get is what you saw yesterday:  a bipartisan embrace of the same policies and ideologies among people with supposedly irreconcilable views of the world.


UPDATE:  Obviously quite related to all of this, if I had to recommend one article for everyone to read this month, it would be Matt Taibbi's new, masterful account in Rolling Stone of how the Obama administration has aggressively ensured the ongoing domination of our government by Wall Street.   I don't want to excerpt any of it because I want to encourage everyone to read it in its entirety; suffice to say, it makes many of the same arguments as those made here in the context of Obama's decisions in the financial and economic realms (though several people, such as Tim Fernholz and Salon's Andrew Leonard, have voiced what appear to be serious objections to some of Taibbi's claims; hopefully, he'll respond).


UPDATE II:  One of the most recurring features of the Bush-follower mindset was the claim that the President's supreme duty -- one which the Constitution requires him to swear to -- is to "protect the country," a rhetorical sleight-of-hand suggesting that the Constitution somehow venerates national security above other values.  As 23skiddo points out, Obama featured this exact claim in an even more misleading form yesterday when -- in explaining why King and Gandhi were too restrictive for him -- he described himself "as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation."

But as this Constitutional scholar surely knows, that is not what he swore to protect and defend when he took his oath of office.  Article II of the Constitution actually requires that he swear or affirm that he "will to the best of [his] Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.''  That's a critical difference, now almost always overlooked/ignored/distorted, as it was yesterday.


UPDATE III:  Andrew Sullivan praises Obama's speech and Obama himself as a shining example of Niebuhrian complexity.  Again, I think the speech, like Obama himself, was intellectually skillful -- even more so politically -- though, personally, I think Chris Hayes is much closer when he says the speech was Obama's typical "wearying," too-clever "on the one hand on the other, I reject false choices, needle-threading 'pragmatism,'" which Hayes said worked well for Obama's campaign speech on race (I agreed) but does not work in matters of war and peace or for much else with Obama any longer.

In a separate post, Sullivan -- referencing what I wrote here -- says that "Obama's foreign policy positions should have been clear to anyone playing attention during the campaign."  I agree.  The moment when I was convinced Obama would win the election was when, during the second presidential debate, McCain virtually accused him of being a warmonger -- or at least reckless -- for advocating further strikes on Pakistan.  That Obama was defending himself from charges of being too eager to threaten military force -- voiced by McCain of all people -- was a shrewd political move.  I don't find anything about Obama's foreign policy positions surprising; as opposed to his civil liberties positions, which he has routinely violated, he outlined these broad foreign policy sketches during the campaign (though added much more detail, and I'd suggest much more receptiveness to war generally, during yesterday's speech).  I don't agree at all with the criticism that his escalation in Afghanistan (as opposed to his civil liberties positions) is a "betrayal."  This is who Obama is and that has been clear for quite awhile.

Still, the question remains:  why did so many Bush-loving neocons and progressives alike react the same way to Obama's comprehensive foreign policy speech yesterday?  What could explain that?  Does Sullivan have an answer?

[Read the original at Glenn Greenwald ()...]

A Little More Mystic Nationalism

December 4th, 2009

This is a syndicated post, originally from Will Wilkinson.

Jonah Goldberg has posted further thoughts on patriotism and nationalism. I think we agree that, in the American context, the distinction between nationalism and patriotism doesn’t come to much. And Jonah agrees that patriotism can be dangerous, but says that the poison is in the dose. I don’t disagree. Our disagreement then is over the point past which a therapeutic dose becomes toxic. My contention is that American patriotism is barely distinguishable from militarism and has been a necessary element in the choice to invade and occupy Iraq, in public support for the unjust imprisonment and state-sanctioned torture of foreigners, and in the erosion of domestic civil rights under the aegis of an imaginary “global war on terror.”

Jonah’s argument goes something like this. Non-rational love is both natural and necessary. It binds people to one another and to shared institutions. Without “a little mystic nationalism,” our rights and liberties would be endangered, perhaps even gone altogether. In particular,  Jonah says “Wilkinson’s mockery wouldn’t be possible if thousands of Americans hadn’t died in an effort to defend his right to mock.”

I hear this argument over and over, and every time it smacks of theft over honest toil.

In the counterfactual world in which the U.S. never entered World Wars I and II, are we less free? Jonah doesn’t know and neither do I. In the counterfactual world in which the American colonies remained in the orbit of the British Empire, are we less free? In the counterfactual world in which the North seceded from the South, as some abolitionists recommended, was emancipation accelerated or delayed?  We do not know. I am fairly confident that all those who died fighting in Vietnam and Iraq did little or nothing to secure our rights to mock. Jonah I’m sure disagrees. But this gets to the heart of our larger disagreement. Where I see an outrageous, repulsive waste of life, Jonah is inclined to see a valiant and tragically necessary defense of the uniquely excellent American way of life. Where I see dangerously toxic patriotic truculence, Jonah is inclined to see the doughty fighting fiber that kept the Huns from our shores.

In any case, it is easy to concede the point that our freedom was bought with blood without conceding that the blood of every fallen American airman, seaman, soldier, and marine bought freedom. Indeed, I can concede the point while continuing to maintain that (a) war generally is disgusting organized mass murder prettified by the majesty of politics and elevated by stirring nationalist appeals, that (b) patriotism tends to makes citizens unthinkingly docile in the face of their state’s calls to war, and that (c) war is the health of the state and among the greatest of all threats to freedom.

As Jonah suggests, tribalism is natural and probably inevitable. Which is why more than a little encouragement is more than enough. The value of liberal rights and a liberal order are clear enough that free people do not need more than a dram of nationalist fortification to rise to liberty’s defense. Liberty is best loved when it is loved because it is good — because it makes possible a rightful order. Liberty is neglected when it is loved merely because it’s what we, the folks in these parts, happen to tell each other we love. An ongoing culture of liberty certainly makes us readier to grasp liberty’s real worth. But a culture in which the love of freedom is too easily confused with an admiration of martial virtue is a culture likely to find itself sooner or later at war with some imagined enemy and its own liberal values.

To say that the love of one’s own can be dangerous, even when liberal values happen to be one’s own, is not to ask of people an inhuman detachment from the meaningful concrete commitments of everyday life. It is simply to note that in a truly civil society, free people act collectively on the basis of public reasons, not shared prejudices. If American blood courses with patriotism beyond the therapeutic dose, life and liberty both are at risk. To brush off such concerns as so much Frenchified abstraction is to put conservative identity politics before liberty and life. I leave it to the patriots to consider which concern is more authentically “American.”

Jonah found my reply to his original post “vile.” For my part, I find the death of tens of thousands in illegitimate wars unspeakably vile. It is a duty to vehemently oppose and discourage them. Here are some questions I have for Jonah: (1) Had American patriotism been rather more subdued in the months and years following 9/11, do you think the invasion of Iraq would have occurred? (2) In what way has the occupation of Iraq made the rights of Americans more secure? (3) Do you agree that the practice of draping the coffins of soldiers killed at war with the national flag makes it more rather than less likely that young men and women will choose to risk death as a soldier? That it makes it more rather than less likely that citizens will see these as noble and necessary deaths, whatever the legitimacy, aim, and consequences of the war?

[Read the original at Will Wilkinson (2009-12-04)...]