Tuesday, November 30, 2004
to feel at home in the world
our superiority since the renaissance is due partly to science and scientific technique, partly to political institutions slowly built up during the middle ages. there is no reason, in the nature of things, why this superiority should continue. in the present war (world war two), great military strength has been shown by russia, china and japan. all these combine western technique with eastern ideology -- byzantine, confucian or shinto. india, if liberated, will contribute another oriental element. it seems not unlikely that, during the next few centuries, civilization, if it survives, will have greater diversity than it has had since the renaissance.russell published this summa in 1945. and this lesson has yet, it would seem, to sink in in america.
there is an imperialism of culture which is harder to overcome than the imperialism of power. long after the western (roman) empire fell -- indeed, until the reformation -- all european culture retained a tincture of roman imperialism. it now has, for us, a west-european imperialistic flavour. i think that, if we are to feel at home in the world after the present war, we shall have to admit asia to equality in our thoughts, not only politically, but culturally. what changes this will bring about, i do not know, but i am convinced that they will be profound and of the greatest importance.
Monday, November 29, 2004
the absurdity of modern secularism
the drive to secularism has long roots in the west, and is further advanced in europe than the united states. but it remains a stalwart feature of the ossified left in america, seeking manifestation wherever it can. often, where is can is san francisco.
so no surprise that a san francisco school has become the first to eliminate the declaration of independence, along with a number of other primary historical sources, from the curriculum of primary education due to the founders' references to their christian heritage and viewpoint.
few of the founders were what most modern christian cultists would recognize as "religious". most were deists, as were most learned men of the late 18th century who were not outright skeptics -- as thomas jefferson, a rousseauian materialist, certainly was. but christians they were, by faith and by civilization. their avowed belief was, in the main, that reason was a gift of god and that god expected them to use it well to care for themselves and each other.
the rapid spread of individualist rousseauian idealism after the catharsis of the french revolution -- an event that irreversibly altered the west and has frequently tainted our view of history ever since -- led eventually to marx and secularism, which when mainstreamed represented the triumph of the state over the church and the juxtaposition the reality of europe as it had previously existed since the end of the roman empire. so completely successful has the march to secularism been that attempts at further advancement yield only absurdities such as these; so thoroughly has secularism destroyed the complex intellectual christian tradition that primitive mysticism is all that remains understood by western man.
so far has the abandonment of god progressed that it now represents what it once deigned to combat: the irrational and the absurd. when history and education are suppressed in the name of secularism, secularism -- once a driving force for western development -- has become an end unto itself without reason. such is the condition of civilization in decadence.
the commerce clause
the hypocrisy of a "conservative" administration advocating further intrusions upon the states and the constitution would be clearer if i thought this administration was conservative. though they have gone on the attack to legislate their moral point of view, that is hardly conservative -- indeed, that is the same objective and method of the great society. if anything, the angle of attack indicates the jacobin enforcement of an antitraditional reduced "morality" with no consistent philosophical underpinning.
for all the bogus blather about an "activist judiciary", there is no evidence that the republicans in power have any intention of doing or being anything else. indeed, an "activist judge" seems to be only one doing his or her job -- but in accordance to the law and american society as they see it, instead of as christian cults see it or would wish it to be. when it comes to drugs or abortion or socialism or homosexuality, the "conservative" view lies very close to unleashing the power of the federal government without restriction to punish the wicked.
and the license for this atrocity to limited government? the commerce clause: "To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes". had the founders known how those words would ultimately be used to destroy constitutional federalism in favor of authoritarianism, they would have expended more verbiage on it.
a falling out among thieves
raimondo, however, well annotated as always, offers much more insight into yushchenko, the ostensibly pro-western figure and certainly the protagonist as reported in american media -- and into the role american oil and ideological interests are playing there.
and where our interest lie, our troops are sure to follow.
By virtue of your absolute silence concerning Russian intervention and Russian intervention, you are saying American intervention = BAD and Russian intervention = GOOD, using skillful rhetoric. Also the piece on which you base your conclusions is rife with misinformation. Right in the first paragraph it does not state that Yuschenko's site is in English, Russian and Ukrainian. I especially like the whole IMHO opinion tone throughout which does not wash. You are very well informed. Only to with views which support your own.
------ ------- ------
my point is only that 1) yushchenko may not have the same goals as the orange movement; and 2) american interference is some part of the yushchenko equation.
------ ------- ------
Post a Comment
Wednesday, November 24, 2004
buttonwood on bretton woods
At the heart of the (Asian) central banks’ calculations is a trade-off: intervening to keep your currency down can be costly, but it is good for exports. Though the costs of intervention are hard to quantify, they are potentially big. Because the domestic money supply is expanded—those dollars must be paid for with something—it can cause inflation (though this can be neutralised through “sterilisation”, ie, bond sales). But the big potential cost is in amassing a huge stash of dollars with precious little exit strategy. Quite simply, Asian central banks now own too many of them to exit en masse, for their exit would cause the dollar to crash and American interest rates to soar, which would cause huge losses on their holdings of Treasuries.they, like i do, attach great meaning to chairman greenspan's words of last week, which represent a sea change in propaganda from the fed that may make more market participants more aggressive in selling the dollar down.
The incentives to flee the Asian cartel (to give it its proper name) thus increase the bigger the game becomes. Why take the risk that another central bank will leave you carrying the can? Better to get out early. Because the game is thus so unstable it will come to an end, and probably a messy one. And what will then happen to the dollar? It is hard to imagine its hegemony remaining unchallenged when so many will have lost so much. And doubly so given that America has abused the dollar’s reserve-currency role so egregiously that its finances now look more like those of a banana republic than an economic superpower.
the consequences of that process -- should it run out of control -- are indescribable in terms most living americans could fully understand.
raimondo is scathing in his rejection of western manipulation in the aftermath of elections in the ukraine -- with the united states threatening to withdraw its $143mm aid package if the pro-western candidate yushchenko is not installed -- as the former soviet holding teeters on the edge of political violence.
from chicago, i can hardly have an idea as to the quality of the election or the veracity of the results. all i can do is read the ukrainian bloggers. the economist notes:
All through the campaign, Ukraine’s news media have been highly skewed towards Mr Yanukovich, barely giving the opposition leader a mention. Ahead of the first round of voting, the official candidate’s supporters were accused of intimidating electoral officials to try to swing the vote his way. Mr Yushchenko even accused them of being behind an attempt to poison him, which has left his face bloated and scarred. In Sunday’s run-off, suspicions centred on possible fraudulent multiple voting in the Russian-speaking east of the country, where support for Mr Yanukovich is strongest. According to the official electoral figures, turnouts there were implausibly high, at up to 96%.did yanukovich and the pro-russian bloc manipulate the ballot box? probably -- and so too did yushchenko. this is the reality of eastern european (and, frankly, american) democracy.
what i certainly do know is that the united states is attempting to intimidate the ukrainians by its considerable leverage -- not only direct aid, which would constitute nearly 5% of the ukrainian government budget, but commercial and military -- which is a good illustration of how the united states uses foreign aid as a lever to indirect rule.
the ukraine could hardly be called an american possession. its very close ties within the old soviet network make it reliant to a great degree on good relations with much-wealthier russia, whose gdp per capita is nearly four times that of the ukraine.
but the united states has been making inroads into the old soviet nations since the collapse of 1991. (more on guuam here.) the base structure report hasn't caught up yet, as is typical (neither camp bondsteel nor any iraqi base has yet been listed, nor have central asian bases), but the result of such military compacts is usually american troops.
establishing a presence in these nations is important for strategic thinkers for a few different reasons. some see a central asian presence as a strategic bulwark against china and russia. others feel a need to guarantee caucasian oil supplies (bondsteel, for instance, is situated along a proposed bp pipeline route). others wishfully think american influence in the region will encourage the growth of pro-american democracy -- which, in the end, constitutes yushchenko's utility to us.
whatever the reason, the united states is growing more heavily involved in ukrainian affairs, and this manipulation in an example of how. this is no different a tactic than any of a hundred empires past have exerted their will upon loosely affiliated nations, and it is yet more evidence of the indirect american empire at work.
You're forgetting someone in all of these grand geopolitical thoughts of yours -- the Ukrainian people. If you could be here in the trenches with them and see the giddiness they're feeling, if you took a moment to recognize their humanity rather than just seeing them as pawns in your geopolitical calculations. . .
Life here has been gray and fatalistic for 70+ years, and the fall of Communism in many ways only worsened that. I cannot find words to express what a difference a week makes.
Maybe it seems archaic to you, but I think the will of the people should count for something.
Rather than just reading raimondo, actually look into the reports of some reputable human rights groups or journalist freedom groups and learn about the real nature of the regime here. Take the time to examine the evidence of massive fraud for yourself. Think for yourself.
------ ------- ------
but, at the same time, it would be foolish -- for both of us -- to ignore that american power is at work here. the ukrainian people suffered under soviet rule, it seems to me; i hope they are careful, in their euphoria, not to entangle themselves too deeply in indirect american rule by an expedient faustian bargain.
------ ------- ------
------ ------- ------
Post a Comment
i would say that, rather than being randian objectivist propaganda, the film is a product of modern times -- times which have also elevated nietzsche and rand. and would anyone suggest that the times are not rampantly individualist? the film is all about personal fulfillment and glory through emancipation from the constraints of society.
is there a randian component in that? maybe. the rise of libertarianism suggests that the utter antisociety of rational self-interest is one of the religions of the age.
the other dominant one is its erstwhile philosophical "opposite" -- socialism, which has ossified from its platonic idealism into a mere responsibility-avoidance device, a tool by which individuals shift the tedious work of truly responsible people onto the state. a less ideological path to personal emancipation, as it were.
Tuesday, November 23, 2004
fighting and fuelling the insurgency
though no one can say what the future holds, the characteristics of the insurgents seem to be becoming clearer. panarabist jihadis seem to make up a small part of the fighters; and they join sunni ba'athists fighting tenaciously to hold onto old privilege in the face of new circumstances; and shi'ite groups (like moqtada al-sadr's) also engaged in maneuvering for post-occupation power.
i also suspect there is an underlying fourth motivation -- beyond ba'athist tenacity, panarab islamist jihad and shi'a empowerment -- which in a sense binds these three in common cause: insurgency against western imperial misrule, whether real or perceived.
i know many americans have a hard time accepting that they are the indirect imperial ruler of the mideast, but it seems to be common knowledge to the arabs and an open discussion everywhere. many in the west have too conveniently ignored this aspect and placed primacy on islamist fundamentalism because that's easier for us to demonize. but all of this -- from the 1960s forward -- is in many respects a war of rebellion against the west.
in any case, taking the harder line on the insurgency presents us with a basic paradox we're faced with.
politically, no one wants more troops, yet more troops may be the likely solution to the problems; more violence on our part may be the only way, but it is anathema both to the west and to the muslim world and may also be our undoing; everyone wants the americans to come home, but that would risk destabilizing the country and allowing it to fall into irreversible chaos and destruction (if that isn't what is already happening, as may well be).
so we're faced with the desperate need for something like 'artful' violence -- effective but restrained -- something the american occupation has shown no aptitude for so far in dropping 500-pound bombs in urban areas, thanks to our casualty phobia.
this unwillingness to die has plagued american military operations for decades now. we too often drop bombs and fire missiles instead of go room to room with men. we are unwilling to risk great american casualties; so we instead inflict the great civilian casualties and indescribable destruction that often dooms the mission to be indistinguishable from the kind of barbaric rampaging that no native population can long endure quietly.
i have little doubt that many iraqis value the fact that saddam is gone, and may even be grateful for that on some level. but our methods there all but force some level of sympathy for the insurgency, which is exactly what any insurgency must have to be successful.
Monday, November 22, 2004
but sometimes one does encounter events in which the probability of a certain outcome is so large relative to all other probabilities that forecasting the likely outcome of an event is something that can be reasonably done.
with a still greater degree of certainty, one can view the absurd points of view vis-a-vis such events and discredit them with a high degree of reliability. (for this reason, it is usually far easier to be a critic than a forecaster.)
i found the iraq war to be one such event -- and so did others. the agitator takes a look back at what the sensible lot at cato had to say prior to the war, and what our elected leaders had to offer.
but it must be remembered that the vast majority of americans believed virtually everything the white house said about what would transpire in iraq in the weeks leading up to the invasion -- proving again the gullible stupidity of the mob.
recognizing the mob is the first step toweard avoiding it -- and it's a step 90% of people never think to take, especially in a plebiscitarian age when many have deluded themselves into believing that the herd mentality is somehow wise.
------ ------- ------
Post a Comment
national socialism in the contemporary
in the aftermath of world war two, a fractured western civilization -- already in flight from any continuity with its past following the first great war -- was left to reckon with the devastation with the philosophical means they had available. for a great many, this meant contextualizing the nazis mystically as evil incarnate -- a method made easier by the onslaught of war propaganda they had consumed -- and therefore inhuman to the individualist masses who believe in the platonic and christian notion of the essential goodness of man. hitler and his ilk were made out as monsters almost of a fairytale sort. this collective dismissal of the human motivations, philosophies and reasonings behind the rise of that horror altered the way the history of the war and its origins was written and conceived, making the reality of how many contemporaries felt hard to see or understand.
so it can be instructive to read the writings of national socialism's contemporaries and advocates, such as anthony ludovici*. ludovici was a serious scholar of his day, a prominent prewar british conservative and an interpreter of nietzsche. he was also a racist, as many early 20th c conservatives were, whose advocacy of eugenics is both ridiculous and disturbing.
ludovici's writings are almost completely forgotten now, as part of an intellectual purging that came following the 1930s. but his admiration of nazi germany exists online in excerpt.
reading them now, i am struck by the similarity of ideals and values that we now see in the american popular appeal of neoconservatism.
* - information on ludovici is often accessible on the net only through websites whose politics many (including myself) will find reprehensible. please understand that in no way am i condoning the views of either ludovici or any website by offering these links. for a modern analysis of ludovici and british fascism, please consult dan stone's "breeding superman: nietzsche, race and eugenics in edwardian and interwar england".
the broken system
it's hard to say if a conception of ethics plays any role at all in the hard-edged american politics of individual greed and glory. that malfeasance dominates the proceedings in washington -- as it certainly now does, with open criminals often prominent -- is in my mind a function of the dissipation of civility and society that we are witness to in our time at the hands of individual or collective will. very often now when a potential conflict with established rules comes up in governance, instead of the conflict being resolved by subordinating will to law, the rules are changed to avoid the conflict and thus subordinating law to unfettered will.
so far do we go to gratify the freedom even unto total irresponsibility of the free will that we are witnessing the end of the rule of law very quietly and often even in nodding approval. delay's case and this latest deception are just the most recent example. the entire movement finds its most powerful manifestation in the imperial presidency, which is unquestioningly supported by a significant number (if a minority) of americans.
it is possible for an aristocracy to manage the affairs of state without brazen manipulation or persistently circumventing the inconveniences of law when they are strongly social and feel real responsibility to limit themselves and behave modestly for the benefit of their kin and countrymen. the idea of noble gentlemen responsibly shepherding the nation seems comically inappropriate now in the meanness of degenerative democracy, though there have been times when such was closer to true.
but those days of flourishing community responsibility, to the extent that they once existed, have largely passed in the west. the march of individualism has dictated that the aristocracy and even the bourgeoisie be sidelined in favor of the proletarian democracy of universal suffrage, putting every shyster and snake-oil salesman within reach of high office. frequently, the bolder and more bizarre their behavior, the better their chance of national recognition and self-enrichment.
the population in general has come to identify such individuality, however egregious, with political virtue -- at the expense and to the detriment of society. such extreme individualism as they confuse with virtue is surely inimical to good government over the long haul by fostering a shortsighted, greedy and permissive society. it is these developments that have coincided with the chaos and subsequent tyranny experienced in many dying democracies past.
Sunday, November 21, 2004
war and speech
one might ask how a film that was shown in exactly the same manner in 2001 and 2002 came to be banned this go-round, despite the same protests arising. and one would find the answer in the ascendancy of a christian cultist to the presidency and his subsequent consolidation of power. in the words of times' columnist frank rich:
What has changed between then and now? A government with the zeal to control both information and culture has received what it calls a mandate. Media owners who once might have thought that complaints by the American Family Association about a movie like "Saving Private Ryan" would go nowhere are keenly aware that the administration wants to reward its base. Merely the threat that the F.C.C. might punish a TV station or a network is all that's needed to push them onto the slippery slope of self-censorship before anyone in Washington even bothers to act.this sort of moral cleansing of the airwaves is seen by the christian cultists represented by organizations like the afa as a good thing, perhaps even as an absolute good. in their view, remembering what actually happened in the past is not as important as being sure that no christian need countenance anything unwholesome in their lives. approximate history is apparently no substitute for approximate chastity.
their interactions with others, consisting of temptation management -- of both others temptations and their own -- could be seen as their futile attempt to, once again, begin constructing a moral utopia. there can be little doubt that they owe much to the kind of idealism that led plato to author his republic or rousseau his social contract.
but, unlike those examples, it is an unconsidered, reflexive idealism -- in fact, anti-intellectual and spiteful of complexity. it is primitive, desperate and mystical, simple to the point of being childlike, along the lines of the cults that arise in dying ages past than any philosophy.
Friday, November 19, 2004
galleries 207-226, 201-206
from late medieval to italian high renaissance and classicism to romanticism, the aic's collection is a fascinating revue of the development of western civilization. to watch the great ideas of ages manifest themselves in pigment and canvas from room to room is as gratifying an experience as one is likely to have.
i grow wistful always in museums of western art. for many years i've experienced a deep emotional connection to the high art of my culture, and i find it is deepening in time. perhaps i am involved in a normal human process, the mechanism by which the young and idealistic often become increasingly conservative. i find ever greater appreciation and affection for what is now gone.
that melancholy wistfulness becomes nearly uncontrollable when i step into the 1870s and the beginning of that golden age of the late 19th century. living in a land and time that is increasingly artless, increasingly superstitious, increasingly brutal and tactile and commercial and gaudy -- ever more absurd, truly -- i find it emotionally difficult not to consider those decades as perhaps the antonine years of the west, whether they are or could be or not.
regardless, the flowering of those years is as resonant an age of painting as any that ever existed. manet. caillebotte. seurat. toulouse-lautrec. degas. renoir... renoir... and renoir -- which arrested me for half an hour. the hue of cobalt blue in this cannot be represented in the pixels of a flatscreen.
i often find it hard to believe that they're already closing the galleries. i was lucky this time, when the guard touched my shoulder, to be standing just where i love to be most -- amid the coasts and lilies and paris of monet. what is it of his perception that makes his work so remarkable?
i personally wonder if any artist before or since ever felt so intimate with light. inevitably when at the aic, i am drawn to the haystacks. monet returned to this scene at chailly over thirty times in two years (1890-91) to express the scene through the seasons and the variations of light, of which the aic has six. a more comprehensive and fascinating study of bucolic light may never have been undertaken. at the end of summer. late in the day. in the gloaming. in winter brilliance. with the high contrast of backlighting. at sunset thawed by a day's warmth. it astounds me every time.
in any case, immersion of this kind is more than a pastime. my edification in the culture of my civilization is to me an essential duty, and one i find irreplacably pleasurable. please go to the aic, or whatever you have near you, such that can teach you about the beauty of civility. it is knowledge sorely lacking in modern society.
"It seems persuasive that, given the size of the U.S. current account deficit, a diminished appetite for adding to dollar balances must occur at some point," Greenspan said in remarks prepared for delivery to a conference on the euro in Frankfurt, Germany.indeed.
Thursday, November 18, 2004
the perks of being a wallflower
the novel, a trite bit of teen angst, will stay on the curriculum despite the protests of parents over its content -- blowjobs and the like. i could care less about the details, although i certainly think that the parents of a community have a right to limit their particular curriculum on moral grounds.
what baffles me is what a book like this is doing in a literature course. it's completely beyond me.
teaching kids about literature is teaching them about history and philosophy and religion and art -- in short, their culture. that is the *purpose* of a literature course and a literary education -- or rather, it was, when literature was part of education and education was more than making one factory-functional while babysitting. literature is a window on civilization. a literary education means so much more than reading some books.
force me to read tennyson a la carte, and it's just words (and a mid-rate poem at that).
but explain victorian romanticism, place it in the narrative of western civilization, show how tennyson was sentimentalizing warfare despite a mechanizing age, how he contributed to the national arrogance of british military imperialism and came to be loved and elevated for it, and how he came to be widely defrocked in the aftermath of world war one when the dangers of misconceived victorian sentimental heroism became so thoroughly exposed as a fraud. THAT's literature, and it stands a chance of being interesting.
what place has this thing in a literary education? it isn't worthy of the word.
such an education is, in no small way, the glue that binds societies. by inserting this thing and its ilk instead, we are rejecting that social continuity, that common bond. it's no different than if a tribal poet quit retelling the historic epics of his tribe and started instead to recount a few recent angst-filled trips to the bathroom. what would become of the tribal bond?
a civilization's history and culture -- in this case, as expressed in its literature -- is far more important than most modern ironic hyperindividualists want to concede. to reject it is, in some measure, to embrace anarchy and collapse. it is part of a cultural suicide attempt.
and, indeed, that is what has been underway in the west for the better part of a century now.
furthermore, that such a book can be confused with literature is an appalling confirmation of the loss of art in the postmodern world. our decaying society doesn't produce great art -- much as the greeks quit producing it in the hellenistic age. almost exactly as with us, the direction and evolving focus of classical high art first suffered a period of decadent eclecticism and then died, leaving the commercial crafts, propaganda and mimicry that characterized the roman empire.
one can see the greek philosophy similarly move from the mysticism of pythagoras and the utopian idealism of plato -- to the pragmatic relativism of protagoras and aristotle -- and then move to the frustration and ironic endurance of the epicurians and stoics (an ethical school for our age if ever one existed).
i rather think we have come upon that age of aimless frustration -- what is our notion of virtue, after all? i think it has become for almost all of us escapist 'tranquility'. that is not always so! the weariness of a decadent age is a response to a loss of direction and an increase in confusion. our civilizational narrative ended in the wars of the early 20th c, and we are lost -- and it has many consequences.
although i do think quality is vastly deteriorated with absurdity, what is just as important as what is being produced is the inability of anyone to see it amid the morass of shit that hides it. criticism is where the failure is most acute, as critics are not principally critical. modern criticism has far more to do with embracing banal shock value and moral dissolution than establishing a style. and that is, i think, partly a feature of hyperindividualism -- a society where no one can be wrong, as it were.
just once i would like to see something emerge from our society that is relevant, engaging, strange, beautiful, intellectual and critically reviled -- as every great new movement in art must be. i would love to see such a thing. really. i want nothing more than to be able to embrace a potentially great new movement, and it would be a powerful sign that perhaps our culture is not quite dead yet.
finally, all of this is sad evidence of the mortally-wounded public school. it, like the novel, is a dying institution that is -- even in its best examples, like wealthy suburban arrowhead -- driving the public into ignorance under the pretenses of education. there's been such a deterioration of what constitutes a standard of education that i can't bear to think of it. it's really the beginning of the end of true literacy, which reached its peak closer to 1900 than 2000.
instead of infusing the young with what it means to be a part of western civilization through the canon of letters, we get this:
English teacher Frank Balistreri, who said he first included the book in his modern literature class at a student's recommendation, said some of the book's disputed sections have been taken out of context.how bizarre! i have no doubt kids need to discuss their social issues -- but as to what that may have to do with a formal education i am at a complete loss to articulate. such sophistic concern with students' self-consciousness has apparently paralyzed us from teaching them anything, and turned schools into an individual emotional exploration. we are all psychoanalysts now, i guess.
The difference between the use of sex in "Perks" and the use of sex in pornography is that, unlike in "Perks," pornography doesn't portray the negative ramifications of sexual activity, Balistreri said.
"If there's consequences, as in 'Perks,' then it's not pornography," he said. "It's discussion of a social issue."
------ ------- ------
but that's not the study of literature. that the study of the animal self.
in an age in which the emotional self overwhelms all things and destroys all things, it may seem to some as though the need to "connect" in a highly emotional way is the only purpose of literature.
my point is to say that that is not so -- that a course in western literature, when done properly, is about the history, the philosophy and the modes of thought of our civilization.
as recreational reading, i'm sure it's a worthy expression of teen angst. i was a high school student once to, and remember the books of my youth as well.
however, as literature, it is non-existent.
------ ------- ------
And please don't forget that your canon only includes dead white men.
------ ------- ------
it seems to me that its primary function in the classroom was as a sort of bibliography for works of actual literature. it is to literature what 'forrest gump' is to 20th c history. it begs the question, then, as to why those works aren't being taught directly for the benefit of students.
to be very clear, the fact that such a thing can be confused for literature is testament to the complete ambiguation of what literature is -- and is part and percel to the drowning of the arts in a sea of mediocrity, a story oft repeated in civilizations in terminal decline.
it was said that in imperial rome there were such an obnoxious surfeit of poets and playwrights that they and their agents blocked the streetcorners of the city reciting their populist and forgettable works to crowds of serial appreciators. the same is true here, i'm sad to say.
------ ------- ------
------ ------- ------
Post a Comment
Wednesday, November 17, 2004
virtue cast aside
and perhaps that was true -- in a more ethical time.
clearly, however, that time has passed.
this should be a clear indicator to the rational observer of how far the house of representatives has deteriorated from any ethical standard. the new modus operandi is this: if the rules are inconvenient, change the rules -- and ethics? a code of conduct? don't burden us with such bizarre notions.
nancy pelosi said it of the republicans, but in truth it applies to the democrats as well:
they simply do not care if their leaders are ethical.indeed, if american politics once valued virtue, it no longer does -- in fact, no longer ever pays lip service to the notion. like pigs at the trough, all but the slops are cast aside.
Tuesday, November 16, 2004
seven deadly sins
what followed in the comments is entirely typical of such threads at reason -- but one turn of phrase uttered by a bush supporter stood out to me:
The reality is that the other nations should have been ashamed of themselves for having the gall to ask us to ratify such absurdly anti-American treaties in the first place.
it is amazing to me that people who would call themselves "conservative" and lay claim to american tradition would utter such patently narcissistic and arrogant words. perhaps our once-christian morality has become so thoroughly perverted that it is unrecognizable. but i cannot believe that americans who claim to be advocates of american tradition (with its strong christian history) see modesty and compromise in image and action as undesirable. have they never read the beatitudes?
indeed, that such brazen untraditional idealism has taken hold in conservatism today indicates to me that perhaps our flight from the history of western civilization is nearly complete. it is as though american society has decided to attempt to become the living embodiment of the seven deadly sins -- and put pride above even avarice and gluttony in doing so.
a reliable source
... an fbi terrorism source.
it seems bizarre to me that this incident would be remarkable for any reason at all. american war crimes in iraq are undeniable, in my opinion -- a simple fact of our being there. scads of evidence -- anecdotal and statistical -- is accruing in favor of that view. so many larger crimes on the level of policy decisions have occurred that to make a big deal of this one strikes me as almost diversionary.
and this administration is far from the first. just a few weeks ago henry kissinger (the most laughably ironic nobel peace prize winner) had his status as a war criminal reinforced over the last month with yet more declassified evidence revealing his support for muderous right-wing dictatorships.
what is fascinating to me is not that war crimes are occurring -- indeed, i think it virtually impossible for an army and government of western individualists, confronted with modern warfare, to behave in any other way regardless of how abhorrently amoral such behavior is. the shocking and appalling is de rigueur.
it is the dimness of the people here at home, who somehow manage to ignore everything that goes on and believe blindly in some noble conception of gentlemanly warfare that died in the 19th century.
oil for food, money for dissolution
nor it is any secret -- among the shrewd, at least -- that the un functions largely as an implement of western power in the third world, providing temporary (or semipermanent) western institutions in places that are suffering for a lack of their own. as such -- and given the nature of the western world has come to appear an an americentric system of orbiting bodies turning madly in various states of angst-filled spin -- it is wholly dependent on the backing of the united states to remain a valid international body.
so no one should be illusioned that the senate investigation into oil-for-food misappropriations represents anything less than putting the united nations on trial for its life. robert novak, as a voice sympathetic to the new view of promethean power in washington, incisively implies (if somewhat overstates) the gravity the proceedings are due.
it is unfortunate, but not accidental, that such allegations as now are being brought before the senator coleman's subcommittee have been so timed. corruption within the un -- and, indeed, the eu and the american government -- are a fact of political life. does anyone really imagine that a trillion dollars can go "missing"? such sums make the billions at question in this scandal look paltry.
but corruption is no important part of the raison d'etre of this investigation. it could have been brought at any time on any of a number of scandals. it is, instead, a pretext.
the coleman investigation is better understood as a political expedient for the bush administration, now having been offered its "mandate", striking two birds with one stone. the death of the un will be viewed in the dominant neoconservative ideological narrative as prometheus' chains broken, and therefore an absolute good. secondly, it will serve as castigation for france -- whose power is magnified through the un security council -- a direct response to paris in clear terms, encouraging chirac and all who come after to behave more appropriately, that is, as an obedient american protectorate.
so, while having the appearance of responsible pragmatism, i fear that this instead is rather a petulant ideological measure on the part of the imperial party. should it ultimately result in the death -- which would be discernible through a massive cut in american financial support -- of the united nations, a great many of the beneficial effects of the un's substitute institutions would ostensibly vanish, perhaps putting beyond remediation many of the failing states the neoconservatives claim to wish to address as part of their war on terrorism.
Monday, November 15, 2004
'let it boil'
a man who cannot reconcile liberalism and progressive politics with faith in christ, who feels compelled to use the language of warfare when speaking of the president's duty to his god, who sees legislation as a vehicle to oppress the wayward -- and pointedly omits the role of deliberation and dialogue regarding ideas and philosophies -- is simply not a christian in any sense i would recognize. the simpleminded cultism that men like jones encourage (at great personal gain, like a moneychanger in the temple) is abhorrent to the two-thousand-year tradition of christian scholarship and philosophy and, yes, tolerance and forgiveness.
the purge continues
it's long been reported that the bush administration is not publicly run on the principles of constructive criticism -- indeed, it appears rather more like a cult, brooking no deviation from the faith, admitting no mistake nor possibility of such. but, internally, it has been supposed that very heated policy debate has occurred all along, pitting the pragmatic powell and sometimes tenet and cia against the ideologues cheney, rumsfeld, wolfowitz and DoD. the pragmatists apparently didn't win often, and have now been moved out.
while there were hopes in some quarters of a neocon diminishment in the aftermath of the presidential election, it's not crystal clear that just the opposite is taking place. any important actor who has expressed contrary opinions, regardless of validity, is being cleared off. the washington note describes it as "neocons +1, realists -8". raimondo is as acerbic as ever.
what does that mean for us? i suspect that policy decisions will become even more detached from reality if ideology has no counterpoint in white house discussion circles. time will tell, of course -- but i personally cannot view as positive the loss of pragmatism's advocates at the highest level.
certainly, legislators don't speak for all the people -- there is a populist groundswell that these governments resist and suppress, it seems to me, and that lies at the core of al-qaeda's popular sympathy as such.
but such equivocation does fit very well within the narrative established by gilles kepel, as was discussed in reason, which (while not pro-american in any sense) asserts that a popular countermovement against al-qaeda based in its failure to manifest its goals -- in fact, in its defeats on that front.
empire of faith
Saturday, November 13, 2004
fussell on religion in war
"'America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.' If so, this would involve the United States 'beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars and interests and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition. . . . She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.'
"These were the words of John Quincy Adams, the greatest of America's Secretaries of State, in his Fourth of July speech in 1821. In 1995 George F. Kennan, perhaps the greatest but surely one of the most principled American patriots in the twentieth cnetury, wrote that Adams's statement was as timely as it had been 174 years before. What we have seen since, and what stares in our faces now, is a total repudiation of Adams's warning by an American President and his government, by the leading American political party, by the most vocal of America's public intellectuals calling themselves 'conservatives, with at least the tacit support of a majority of conservative' Americans."
------ ------- ------
Post a Comment
Thursday, November 11, 2004
good-bye to all that
on the morning of the 23rd, thomas came back from battalion headquarters carrying a notebook and six maps, one for each of us company officers. "listen," he said, "and copy out all this skite on the back of your maps. you'll have to explain it to your platoons this afternoon. tomorrow morning we go back to dump our blankets, packs and greatcoats in bethune. the next day, that's saturday the 25th, we attack." this being the first definitive news we had been given, we looked up half startled, half relieved. i still have the map, and these are the orders as i copied them down:
"first objective -- les briques farm -- the big house is plainly visible to our front, surrounded by trees. to reach this it is necessary to cross three lines of enemy trenches. the first is three hundred yards distant, the second four hundred, the third about six hundred. we then cross two railways. behind the second railway line is a german trench called the brick trench. then comes the farm, a strong place with moat and cellars and a kitchen garden strongly staked and wired.
"second objective -- the town of auchy -- this is also plainly visible from our trenches. it is four hundred yards beyond the farm and defended by a first line of trench half-way across, and a second line immediately in front of the town. when we have occupied the first line our direction is half-right, with the left of the battalion directed on tall chimney.
"third objective -- village of haisnes -- conspicuous by high-spired church. our eventual line will be taken up on the railway behind this village, where we will dig in and await reinforcements."
when thomas had reached this point, The Actor's shoulders were shaking with laughter.
"what's up?", thomas said irritably.
The Actor giggled: "who in god's name is responsible for this little effort?"
"don't know," thomas said. "probably paul the pimp, or someone like that." (paul the pimp was a captain on the divisional staff, young, inexperienced and much disliked. he wore red tabs upon his chest, and even on his undervest.) "between the six of us, but you youngsters must be careful not to let the men know, this is what they call a 'subsidiary attack'. there will be no troops in support. we've just got to go over and keep the enemy busy while the folk on our right do the real work. you notice that the bombardment is much heavier over there. they've knocked the hohenzollern redoubt to bits. personally, i don't give a damn either way. we'll get killed whatever happens."
we all laughed.
"all right, laugh now, but by god, on saturday we've got to carry out this funny scheme." i had never heard thomas so talkative before.
"sorry," The Actor apologized, "carry on with the dictation."
thomas went on:
"the attack will be preceded by forty minutes discharge of the accessory (gas cylinders), which will clear the path for a thousand yards, so that the two railway lines will be occupied without difficulty. our advance will follow closely behind the accessory. behind us are three fresh divisions and the cavalry corps. it is expected we shall have no difficulty in breaking through. all men will parade with their platoons; pioneers, servants, etc., to be warned. all platoons to be properly told off under NCO's. every NCO is to know exactly what is expected of him, and when to take over command in case of casualties. men who lose touch must join up with the nearest company or regiment and push on. owing to the strength of the accessory, men should be warned against remaining too long in captured trenches where the accessory is likely to collect, but to keep to the open and above all to push on. it is important that if smoke-helmets have to be pulled down they must be tucked in under the shirt."
The Actor interrupted again. "tell me, thomas, do you believe in this funny accessory?"
thomas said: "it's damnable. it's not soldiering to use stuff like that, even though the germans did start it. it's dirty, and it'll bring us bad luck. we're sure to bungle it. look at those new gas-companies -- sorry, excuse me this once, i mean accessory-companies -- their very look makes me tremble. chemistry-dons from london university, a few lads straight from school, one or two NCO's of the old-soldier type, trained together for three weeks, then given a job as responsible as this. of course they'll bungle it. how could they do anything else? but let's be merry. i'm going on again:...."
that afternoon i repeated the whole rigmarole to the platoon, and told them of the inevitable success attending our assault. they seemed to believe it. all except sergeant townsend. "do you say, sir, that we have three divisions and the cavalry corps behind us?" he asked.
"yes," i answered.
"well, excuse me, sir, i'm thinking it's only those chaps on the right that'll get reinforcements. if we get half a platoon of angels, that's about all we'll get."
"sergeant townsend," i said, "you're a well-known pessimist. this is going to be a really good show."
a grey, watery dawn broke at last behind the german lines; the bombardment, surprisingly slack all night, brisked up a little. "why the devil don't they send them over quicker?" The Actor complained. "this isn't my idea of a bombardment. we're getting nothing opposite us. what little there seems to be is going into the hohenzollern."
"shell shortage. expected it," was thomas' laconic reply.
we were told afterwards that on the 23rd a german aeroplane had bombed the army reserve shell-dump and sent it up. the bombardment on the 24th, and on the day of the battle itself, compared very poorly with that of the previous days. thomas looked strained and ill. "it's time they were sending that damned accessory off. i wonder what's doing."
the events of the next few minutes are difficult for me now to sort out. i found it more difficult still at the time. all we heard back there in the sidings was a distant cheer, confused crackle of rifle-fire, yells, heavy shelling on our front line, more shouts and yells, and a continuous rattle of machine guns. after a few minutes, lightly wounded men of the middlesex came stumbling down maison rouge alley to the dressing station. i stood at the junction of the siding and the alley.
"what happened? what happened?" i asked.
"bloody balls-up," was the most detailed answer i could get.
among the wounded were a number of men yellow-faced and choking, their buttons tarnished green -- gas cases. then came the badly wounded. maison rouge alley being narrow, the stretchers had difficulty in getting down. the germans started shelling it with five-point-nines.
thomas went back to battalion headquarters through the shelling to ask for orders. it was the same place that i had visited on my first night in the trenches. this cluster of dugouts in the reserve line showed very plainly from the air as battalion headquarters, and never should have been occupied during a battle. just before thomas arrived, the germans put five shells into it. the adjutant jumped one way, the colonel the other, the RSM a third. one shell went into the signals dugout, killed some signallers and destroyed the telephone. the colonel, slightly cut on the hand, joined the stream of wounded and was carried back as far as the base with it. the adjutant took command.
meanwhile 'a' company had been waiting in the siding for the rum to arrive; the tradition being a double tot of rum beforehand. all the other companies got theirs. The Actor began cursing: "where the bloody hell's that storeman gone?" we fixed bayonets in readiness to go up and attack as soon as captain thomas returned with orders. hundreds of wounded streamed by. at last thomas' orderly appeared. "captain's orders, sir: 'a' company to move up to the front line." at that moment the storeman arrived, without rifle or equipment, hugging the rum bottle, red-faced and retching. he staggered up to The Actor and said, "there you are, sir!", then fell on his face in the thick mud of a sump-pit at the junction of the trench and the siding. the stopper of the bottle flew out and what remained of the three gallons bubbled on the ground. The Actor made no reply. this was a crime that deserved the death penalty. he put one foot on the storeman's neck, the other in the small of his back, and trod him into the mud. then he gave the order "company forward!" the company advanced with a clatter of steel, and this was the last i ever heard of the storeman.
it seems that at half-past four an RE captain commanding the gas-company in the front line phoned through to divisional headquarters: "dead calm. impossible discharge accessory." the answer he got was: "accessory to be discharged at all costs." thomas had not over-estimated the gas-company's efficiency. the spanners for unscrewing the cocks of the cylinders proved, with two or three exceptions, to be misfits. the gas-men rushed about shouting for the adjustable spanner. they managed to discharge one or two cylinders; the gas went whistling out, formed a thick cloud a few yards off in no man's land, and then gradually spread back into our trenches. the germans, who had been expecting gas, immediately put on their gas helmets: semi-rigid ones, better than ours. bundles of oily cotton-waste were strewn along the german parapet and set alight as a barrier to the gas. then their batteries opened on our lines. the confusion in the front trench must have been horrible; direct hits broke several of the gas-cylinders, the trench filled with gas, the gas-company stampeded.
ah, are you digging on my grave?
My loved one? planting rue?'
'No: yesterday he went to wed
One of the brightest wealth has bred.
'It cannot hurt her now', he said,
'That I should not be true.'
'Then who is digging on my grave?
My nearest dearest kin?'
'Ah, no; they sit and think, 'What use!
What good will planting flowers produce?
No tendance of her mound can loose
Her spirit from Death's gin.'
'But some one digs upon my grave?
My enemy? prodding sly?'
'Nay: when she heard you had passed the Gate
That shuts on all flesh soon or late,
She thought you no more worth her hate,
And cares not where you lie.'
'Then, who is digging on my grave?
Say since I have not guessed !'
'O it is I, my mistress dear,
Your little dog, who still lives near,
And much I hope my movements here
Have not disturbed your rest?'
'Ah, yes! You dig upon my grave . . .
Why flashed it not on me
That one true heart was left behind!
What feeling do we ever find
To equal among human kind
A dog's fidelity !'
'Mistress, I dug upon your grave
To bury a bone, in case
I should be hungry near this spot
When passing on my daily trot.
I am sorry, but I quite forgot
It was your resting-place.'
-- Thomas Hardy
in flanders fields
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields. "
-- John McCrae
a satire of circumstance: 1918
the next major event was a shocking reversal. during the last half of 1917 the germans had been quietly shifting their eastern forces to the western front. their armistice with the bolsheviks gave them the opportunity of increasing their western forces by 30 per cent. at 4:30 on the morning of march 21, 1918, they struck in the somme area, and on a forty-mile front. it was a stunning victory. the british lost 150,000 men almost immediately, 90,000 as prisoners; and the total british casualties rose to 300,000 within the next six days. the germans plunged forty miles into the british rear.
the impact of the crisis on the home-front morale can be inferred from london newspaper reaction. the following it typical:
WHAT CAN I DO? -- How the Civilian May Help in This Crisis.
Write encouragingly to friends at the front.
Don't repeat foolish gossip.
Don't listen to idle rumors.
Don't think you know better than Haig.
haig, back-pedaling, felt sufficiently threatened to issue on april 12 his famous "backs to the wall" order of the day. this registered the insecurity of the british position in some very rigid and unencouraging terms: "every position must be held to the last man. there must be no retirement. with our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one must fight on to the end." in its dogged prohibition of maneuver or indeed of any tactics, this can stand as the model for hitler's later orders for the ultimate defense of positions like el alamein and stalingrad. there are conventions and styles in orders of the day just as for any literary documents.
hardy would have been pleased to know that of this famous order one corporal noted: "we never received it. we to whom it was addressed, the infantry of the front line, were too scattered, too busy trying to survive, to be called into any formation to listen to orders of the day."
during may and june the germans advanced to great effect near the rivers lys and marne. but unwittingly they were engaged in demonstrating the most ironic point of all, namely, that successful attack ruins troops. in this way it is just like defeat. this is a way of reiterating blunden's point that it is the war that wins. the spectacular german advance finally stopped largely for this reason: the attackers, deprived of the sight of "consumer goods" by years of efficient allied blockade, slowed down and finally halted to loot, get drunk, sleep it off and peer about. the champagne cellars of the marne proved especially tempting. the german rudolf binding records what happened when the attack reached albert:
today the advance of our infantry suddenly stopped near albert. nobody could understand why. our airmen had reported no enemy between albert and amiens.... i jumped into a car with orders to find out what was causing the stoppage in front.... as soon as i got near (albert) i began to see curious sights. strange figures, which looked very little like soldiers, and certainly showed no signs of advancing, were making their way back out of town. there were men driving cows before them...; others who carried a hen under one arm and a box of notepaper under the other. men carrying a bottle of wine under their arm and another open in their hand. men who had torn a silk drawing-room curtain from off its rods and were dragging it to the rear.... more men with writing-paper and colored note-books.... men dressed up in comic disguise. men with top-hats on their heads. men staggering. men who could hardly walk.
by midsummer it was apparent that the german army had destroyed itself by attacking successfully. on august 8, designated by ludendorff "the black day of the german army", the allies counterattacked and broke through. in the german rear they found that maneuver was now possible for the first time since autumn 1914. from here to the end their advance was rapid as the german forces fell apart.
the german collapse was assisted by american attacks in september at the st. mihiel salient and between the river meuse and the argonne forest. simultaneously the british were advancing near st. quentin-cambrai and the belgians near ghent. despite exhaustion and depletion on all sides -- half the british infantry were now younger than nineteen -- the end was inevitable. on november 9, 1918, the kaiser having fled, germany declared herself a republic and two days later signed the armistice in the forest of compiegne. the war had cost the central powers three and a half millions men. it had cost the allies over five million.
a satire of circumstance: 1917
on january 1, 1917, haig was elevated to the rank of field marshal, and on march 17, bapaume -- one of the main first-day objectives of the somme jump-off nine months before -- was finally captured. the germans had proclaimed their intention of practicing unrestricted submarine warfare in the atlantic on february 1, and by april 6 this had brought a declaration of war from the united states. henceforth the more subtle allied strategists knew that winning the war would be only a matter of time, but they also knew that, since the united states was not ready, the time would not be short.
meanwhile, something had to be done on the line. on april 9 the british again tried the old tactic of head-on assault, this time near arras in an area embracing the infamous vimy ridge, which for years had dominated the southern part of the ypres salient. the attack, pressed for five days, gained 7000 yards at a cost of 160,000 killed and wounded. the same old thing. but on june 7 there was something new, something finally exploiting the tactic of surprise. near messines, south of ypres, british miners had been tunneling for a year under the german front lines, and by early june they had dug twenty-one horizontal mineshafts stuffed with a million pounds of high explosive a hundred feet below crucial points in the german defense system. at 3:10 in the morning these mines were all set off at once. nineteen of them went up, and the shock wave jolted lloyd george in downing street 130 miles away. two failed to explode. one of these went off in july 1955, injuring no one but forcibly reminding citizens of the nearby rebuilt town of ploegsteert of the appalling persistence of the great war. the other, somewhere deep underground near ploegsteert wood, has not gone off yet.
the attack at messines following these explosions had been brilliantly planned by general sir herbert plumer, who emerges as a sort of intellectual's hero of the british great war. in sad contrast to haig, he was unmilitary in appearance, being stout, chinless, white-haired and pot-bellied. but he had imagination. his mines totally surprised the germans, ten thousand of whom were permanently entombed immediately. seven thousand panicked and were taken prisoner. nine british divisions and seventy-two tanks attacked straightaway on a ten-mile front. at the relatively low cost of 16,000 casualties they occupied vimy ridge.
if messines showed what imagination and surprise could do, the attack toward passchendaele, on the northern side of the ypres salient, indicated once more the old folly of reiterated abortive assaulting. sometimes dignified as the third battle of ypres, this assault, beginning on july 31, was aimed, it was said, at the german submarine bases on the belgian coast. this time the artillery was relied on prepare the ground for the attack, and with a vengeance: over ten days four million shells were fired. the result was highly ironic, even in this war where irony was a staple. the bombardment churned up the ground; rain fell and turned the dirt into mud. in the mud the british assaulted until the attack finally attenuated three and a half months later. price: 370,000 british dead and wounded and sick and frozen to death. thousands literally drowned in the mud. it was a reprise of the somme, but worse. twenty years later wyndham lewis looked back on passchendaele as an all-but-inevitable collision between two "contrasted but as it were complementary types of idee fixe": the german fondness for war, on the one hand, and the british muddle-headed "doggedness," on the other. these, he says, "found their perfect expression on the battlefield, or battle-bog, of passchendaele." onomatopoeic speculations bring him finally to a point where again we glimpse hardy as the presiding spirit:
the very name (passchendaele), with its suggestion of splashiness and of passion all at once, was subtly appropriate. this nonsense could not have come to its full flower at any other place but at passchendaele. it was pre-ordained. the moment i saw the name on the trench-map, intuitively i knew what was going to happen.
ever since the first use of tanks in the summer of 1916 it had been clear that, given sufficient numbers, here was a way of overcoming the gross superiority provided an entrenched enemy by the machine gun. but not until the attack at cambrai on november 20 were tanks used in sufficient quantity. now 381 of them coughed and crawled forward on a six-mile front, and this time with impressive success. but, as usual, there were insufficient reserves to exploit the breakthrough.
a satire of circumstance: 1916
the need for a stiffening of home-front morale at the beginning of 1916 can be gauged by the poet laureate's issuing in january an anthology of uplifting literary passages of a neo-platonic tendency titled the spirit of man. such was the military situation, robert bridges implied in his introduction, that "we can turn to seek comfort only in the quiet confidence of our souls." we will thus "look instinctively to the seers and poets of mankind, whose sayings are the oracles and prophecies of loveliness and lovingkindness." the news from belgium and france, not to mention turkey, was making it more and more necessary to insist, as bridges does, that "man is a spiritual being, and the proper work of his mind is to interpret the world according to his higher nature...." such an outlook is now indispensable, for we are confronted with "a grief that is intolerable constantly to face, nay impossible to face without that trust in god which makes all things possible."
the comforts purveyed by the spirit of man were badly needed, for 1915 had been one of the most depressing years in british history. it had been a year not only of ironic mistakes but of a grossly unimaginative underestimation of the enemy and of the profound difficulties of siege warfare. poor sir john french had to be sent home, to be replaced by sir douglas haig as commander of the british forces. one doesn't want to be too hard on haig, who doubtless did all he could and who has been well calumniated already. but it must be said that it now appears that one thing the war was testing was the usefulness of the earnest scottish character in a situation demanding the military equivalent of wit and invention. haig had none. he was stubborn, self-righteous, inflexible, intolerant -- especially of the french -- and quite humorless. and he was provincial: at his french headquarters he insisted on attending a church of scotland service every sunday. bullheaded as he was, he was the perfect commander for an enterprise committed to endless abortive assaulting. indeed, one powerful legacy of haig's performance is the conviction among the imaginative and intelligent today of the unredeemable defectiveness of all civil and military leaders. haig could be said to have established the paradigm. his want of imagination and innocence of artistic culture have seemed to provide a model for great men ever since.
to haig the lesson of 1915 was clear and plain. a successful attack leading to a breakthrough would have to be infinitely larger and wider and stronger and better planned than had been imagined. with this kind of attack in view, haig and his staff spent the first six months of 1916 preparing an immense penetration of the german line on the somme which he was confident would end the war. the number of men destined for the attack, equal to twenty-six world war two infantry divisions, constituted a seven-to-one superiority over the germans. while the planning was underway, france was engaged at verdun. its defense bled her so badly that henceforth the main offensive effort on the western front had to be british. there were not enough french left, and those remaining were so broken in spirit that the mutinies of may 1917, given the stingy french leave and recreation policy, might have been predicted. the ironic structure of events was becoming conventional, even hardyesque: if the pattern of things in 1915 had been a number of small optimistic hopes ending in small ironic catastrophes, the pattern of 1916 was that of one vast optimistic hope leading to one vast ironic catastrophe. the somme affair, destined to be known among the troops as The Great Fuck-Up, was the largest engagement fought since the beginnings of civilization.
by the end of june 1916, haig's planning was finished and the attack on the somme was ready. Sensing that this time the german defensive wire must be cut and the german front line positions obliterated, haig bombarded the enemy trenches for a full week, firing a million and a half shells from 1537 guns. at 7:30 on the morning of july 1, the artillery shifted to more distant targets and the attacking waves of eleven british divisions climbed out of their trenches on a thirteen-mile front and began walking forward. and by 7:31 the mere six german divisions facing them had carried their machine guns upstairs from the deep dugouts where during the bombardment they had harbored safely -- and even comfortably -- and were hosing the attackers walking toward them in orderly rows or puzzling before the still uncut wire. out of 110,000 who attacked, 60,000 were killed or wounded on this one day. over 20,000 lay dead between the lines, and it was days before the wounded in no man's land stopped crying out.
the disaster had many causes. lack of imagination was one: no one imagined that the germans could have contrived such deep dugouts to hide in while the artillery pulverized the ground overhead, just as no one imagined that the german machine gunners could get up the stairs and mount their guns so fast once the bombardment moved away at precisely 7:30. another cause was traceable to the class system and the assumptions it sanctioned. the regulars of the british staff entertained an implicit contempt for the rapidly trained new men of "kitchener's army", largely recruited among workingmen from the midlands. the planners assumed that these troops -- burdened for the assault with 66 pounds of equipment -- were too simple and animal to cross the space between the opposing trenches in any way except in full daylight and aligned in rows or "waves". it was felt that the troops would become confused by more subtle tactics like rushing from cover to cover, or assault-firing, or following close upon a continuous creeping barrage.
a final cause of the disaster was the total lack of surprise. there was a hopeless absence of cleverness about the whole thing, entirely characteristic of its author. the attackers could have feinted: they could have lifted the bombardment for two minutes at dawn -- the expected hour for an attack -- and then immediately resumed it, which might have caught the seduced german machine gunners unprotected up at their open firing positions. but one suspects that if such a feint was ever considered, it was rejected as unsporting. whatever the main cause of failure, the attack on the somme was the end of illusions about breaking the line and sending cavalry through to end the war. contemplating the new awareness brought to both sides by the first day of july 1916, blunden wrote eighteen years later: "by the end of the day both sides had seen, in a sad scrawl of broken earth and murdered men, the answer to the question. no road. no thoroughfare. neither race had won, nor could win, the war. the war had won, and would go on winning."
regardless of this perception, the british attempt on the somme continued mechanically until stopped in november by freezing mud. a month earlier the british had unveiled an innovation, the tank, on the road between albert and bapaume, to the total surprise and demoralization of the enemy. but only thirty-two had been used, and this was not enough for a significant breakthrough. a terrible gloom overcame everyone at the end of 1916. it was the bottom, even worse than the end of 1915. "we are going to lose this war," lloyd george was heard to say. and the dynamics of hope abridged continued to dominate 1917 with two exceptions, the actions at messines in june and at cambrai in november.
a satire of circumstance: 1915
the new year, 1915, brought the repeated failure of british attempts to break through the german line and to unleash the cavalry in pursuit. they failed, first, because of insufficient artillery preparation -- for years no one had any idea how much artillery fire would be needed to destroy the german barbed wire and to reach the solid german deep dugouts; second, because of insufficient reserves for exploiting a suddenly apparent weakness; and third, because the british attacked on excessively narrow frontages, enabling every part of the ground gained to be brought under retaliatory artillery fire.
however, the first failed attack of 1915 was not british but german. the area selected was near ypres, and the fracas has been named the second battle of ypres, or simply second ypres. on april 22, after discharging chlorine gas from cylinders, the germans attacked and advanced three miles. but then they faltered for a lack of reserves. gas had first been used by the germans on october 27, 1914, when they fired a prototype of modern tear gas from artillery near ypres. the german use of gas -- soon to be imitated by the british -- was thought an atrocity by the ignorant, who did not know that, as liddell hart points out, gas is "the least inhumane of modern weapons." its bad press was the result of its novelty: "it was novel and therefore labelled an atrocity by a world which condones abuses but detests innovations." in the late april attack at ypres the british were virtually unprotected against gas -- the "box respirator" was to come later -- and even though the line was substantially held, the cost was 60,000 british casualties.
a few weeks later it was the british turn. on march 10 the first of the aborted british offensives was mounted at neuve chapelle. the attach was only 2000 yards wide, and, although it was successful at first, it died for lack of reserves and because the narrow frontage invited too much retributive german artillery. again the british tried, on may 15 at festubert, and with similar results: initial success turned to disaster. going through the line was beginning to look impossible. it was thus essential to entertain hopes of going around it, even if going around took one as far away as gallipoli, 2200 miles southeast of the western front, where troops had begun landing on april 25.
imagining themselves instructed by these occasions of abridged hope at neuve chapelle and festubert, the british mounted a larger attack near loos on september 15. six divisions went forward at once, and this time the attack was preceded not only by the customary artillery barrage but by the discharge of what robert graves tells us was euphemized as "the accessory" -- cylinders of chlorine gas. most of it blew back into the british trenches, and the attach was another failure which even the Official History later stigmatized as a "useless slaughter of infantry". the proceedings at loos were called off eleven days after they had started, but not before 60,000 more british casualties had been added to the total.
now volunteers were no longer sufficient to fill the ranks. in october, lord derby's "scheme" -- a genteel form of conscription -- was promulgated, and at the beginning of 1916 with the passing of the military service act, england began training her first conscript army, an event which could be said to mark the beginning of the modern world. clearly the conscripts were needed, for things were going badly everywhere. the assault at gallipoli was proving as unsuccessful as the assaults everywhere, and at the end of 1915 the forces there were withdrawn with nothing gained.
a satire of circumstance: 1914
the british fought the war for four years and three months. its potential of ironic meaning, considered not now in relation to the complacencies of the past but in itself alone, emerges when we consider its events chronologically. the last five months of 1914, starting august 4, when the british declared war on the central powers, began with free maneuver in belgium and northern france and ended with both sides locked into the infamous trench system. before this stalemate, the british engaged in one major retreat and fought two large battles, although 'battles' is perhaps not the best word, having been visited upon these events by subsequent historiography in the interest of neatness and the assumption of something like a rational causality.
to call these things battles is to imply an understandable continuity with earlier british history and the imply that the war makes sense in a traditional way. as esme wingfield-stratford points out, "a vast literature has been produced in the attempt to bring (the great war) into line with other wars by highlighting its so-called battles by such impressive names as loos, verdun, the somme, and passchendaele...." this is to try to suggest that these events parallel blenheim and waterloo not only in glory but in structure and meaning.
the major retreat was the retreat from mons on august 24, necessitated when sir john french's four divisions -- the whole of the british force engaged -- found themselves outflanked. in early september this retreat merged into the first of the 'battles', known as the marne, where the british and the french gradually stopped the german advance on paris, although at the cost of half a million casualties on each side. prevented from going through to paris, the germans sought an opening further north, and each side now began trying to turn its enemy's western flank with the object of winning the war rapidly and economically; it was still thought by some that this was a compassable object.
the ensuing maneuvers during late october and early november are variously misnamed "the first battle of ypres" and "the race to the sea" -- that is, to the belgian seaports. the journalistic formula "the race to the ______" was ready to hand, familiar through its use in 1909 to describe peary's "race to the (north) pole" against cook. rehabilitated and applied to these new events, the phrase had the advantage of a familiar sportsmanlike, 'explorer club' overtone, suggesting that what was happening was not too far distant from playing games, running races, and competing in a thoroughly decent way.
by the middle of november these exertions has all but wiped out the original british army. at the beginning of the war, a volunteer had to stand five foot eight to get into the army. by october 11, the need for men was such that the standard was lowered to five feet five. and on november 5, after the thirty thousand casualties of october, one had to be only five feet three to get in. the permanent trenchline had been dug running from nieuport, on the belgian coast, all the way to the swiss border, with the notorious ypres salient built in.
the perceptive could already see what the war was going to be like. as early as october 1914, captain g.b. pollard wrote home, using gingerly a novel word whose implications would turn more and more ghastly as time went on: "it's absolutely certainly a war of 'attrition,' as somebody said here the other day, and we have got to stick it longer than the other side and go on producing men, money and material until they cry quits, and that's all about it, as far as i can see." lord kitchener was one who agreed with captain pollard. near the end of october he issued a call for 300,000 volunteers. most of them would be expended on the somme in 1916. the first christmas of the war say an absolute deadlock in the trenches. both british and german soldiers observed an informal, ad hoc christmas day truce, meeting in no man's land to exchange cigarettes and to take snapshots. outraged, the staff forbad this ever to happen again.
the great illusion
the blow that hurled the modern world on its course of self-destruction was the Great War of 1914-18.
the 15 years that preceded the catastrophe have since been called la belle epoque and also "the banquet years". this nostalgic remembrance dwelt on the high artistic achievements of the cubist decade and on the outstanding minds that promoted social reform and forced a political turnaround that has shaped the present conception of the state throughout the west. a third form of energy was also at work: the practice of the cult of violence. many contemporaries blinded themselves to its significance in the enthusiasm for the for the abundance of original art and intellect: but many others, with fear or zeal, thought about nothing else.
the west that brought on itself the war of 1914 was a larger society than the one that was split four centuries earlier by the protestant revolution. the later europe included russia and turkey, and the world at war included africa, australia, new zealand, the south pacific, and japan. two thirds of the way through, the united states joined the occident. the seas were doubled in size by the submarine, and the air was added as a spacious new theater of war. who can deny the reality of progress?
much has been said about the causes of the great war, and all the chief actors in the feverish august days -- nations and individuals both -- have been accused of making it inevitable.... all... worked hard to avert the catastrophe. and no man could have engineered it alone. likewise, no single "cause", overt or underlying, propelled the multitudes into shedding their blood. a cluster of long-standing conditions, of cultural traits and intellectual defects, of purposes varying in force, brought the diverse minds to their collective act of will.
it has... been said that nationalism was the root cause of the great war. that passion was indeed one of the impelling ideas, but it was rather the failure of nationalism in central and eastern europe: the long delay before germany, austria, italy, and russia became nations bred in that region the perpetually nervous and grasping state of mind. ...it was late in the day to hope for the fusion that the full-fledged nations had achieved when the occidental monarchs made their revolution. in a europe with parliaments and free-thinking intellectuals, separatist and irredentist feeling could not be stilled. the appeal to some past greatness, to a "unique language", to "a great hero of the 9th c sung in the national epic", to religion -- all this together with the demand for a parliament in the place of puppet kings, energized small groups that could only be repressed by intermittent violence. the tyranny that the weak exercise on the strong undid all compromises.
both sides had plenty of reason for arming to the teeth. ...everywhere "the next war" filled news articles and common talk. the phrase was the title of a book by a german general, and the provocative utterances of the kaiser helped keep the tension high.
what must be said further about the 20th c colonial empires is not that nations found them financially worth fighting for -- on the contrary, they were an expense; only some individuals profited. but imperialism created endless opportunities for enhancing or wounding prestige. hence the boast about possessing lands so fortunate that the sun never sets on them. in short, not alone imperialism as economic greed, but "national honor" -- jingoism as a state of mind -- was another of the conditions that led to war.
violent events... made the conscious mind reel: anger, shame, pride, confusion, relief, then a return to apprehension nurtured by the press. newspapers were more widely read than ever as public schooling kept increasing the number of working-class readers. replacing the pulpit as the medium for information about current events, print was more authoritative than voice, and its message came out daily, not once a week on sunday. and instead of being coupled with a predictable sermon, the news (true or not) sounded fresh and was served up with excitement added. the power of the press was demonstrated when it prodded the united states into that gratifying war with spain.
the educated public that read the weeklies was likely to find in some of them justification for war as such, or at least debate about it. it was a live issue because writers of various nationalities and grades on intellect were social darwinists; they believed that the theory of natural selection applied to nations as well as to animal species: struggle brought out the fittest. ... war might be costly in lives and money, but the reward was an improved "race", a stronger, finer, more capable people. ... the american president theodore roosevelt generalized the notion as "the strenuous life" and defined foreign policy as walking softly and carrying a big stick.
yet another line of thought converged with social darwinism to reinforce the war spirit. scholars who called themselves anthropo-sociologists did not hesitate to assert that the "mediterranean race", with its brown eyes and round skull, was not disposed toward individual self-reliance and risk-taking. its nature was to favor socialism -- protection by the state; whereas the nordic type was a pioneer, the individual endowed with courage and originality, who single-handedly achieves great things. on him alone progress depends.
that fortunate adventurer... cecil rhodes, believed this prediction so literally that to help prepare the future rulers of the world he endowed by his will of 1903 the scholarships that bear his name. they were intended for english, german and american students of high character and ability.... when war came, the germans suddenly lost their racial merit and their scholarships. ... but in the basis of these groupings one detects the principle that hitler exploited in his third reich. a nation is forged into unity by successive wars and the passage of time. when this result has not been achieved, some other means must be found.
... to many artists public affairs seemed unworthy of their attention. their contempt for politicians, mass movement, and journalism equaled their scorn for business at large. they looked down not merely on the source of their own families' wealth but also on the prosperous "academic" artist, and more harshly still on publishers, art dealers or musical impresarios.
this haughty ignorance of social and political facts enables us to understand why the cultivated classes reacted as they did when the war came: several hundred intellectuals in germany signed a manifesto denouncing "the other side" as if betrayed by a friend and brother. it was immediately answered, with a like rhetoric, by several hundred of the french. the enemy's purpose must be wicked since we are innocent.
as for the masses, when they heard the newsboys shout: "war declared!", they felt as if concussed. their thoughts ran wild in all directions. it could not be, and yet it was. the word war had been uttered a million times earlier, in fear or in hope and raised whatever images the speaker had at command; but the immediate prospect of battle was like an explosion in the soul. the next instant, emotions varied -- appall for some, joy for others; relief at the end of suspense, positive zest for action, negative resolve to die rather than yield; all this projected against a kaleidoscopic background of faces -- son, brother, husband, friend.
mingled with concern for the self and those held dear went a sudden spasm of brotherly love for all fellow citizens, high and low. danger, glory made them into a compact totality of equals at grips with heavens knows what evils. it was exhilarating and righteous besides. the overarching thought was a great simplifier; everybody understands war and bows to is single objective. long dormant motives burst into life: heroism -- risking one's life unselfishly to defend the homeland, its women and children; manliness -- to do superhuman deed under fire; to put down wanton aggressors who were committing atrocities.
altogether, it spelled liberation from the humdrum of existence, with all its petty cunning for selfish ends. a new life opened, free of corrupt motives and vulgar self-indulgence. proponents of war as good in itself were being vindicated. thematically, the first industrial world war combined primitivism -- the cure for civilization that carpenter had called for -- with emancipation that nobody could oppose.
"redemption by war" was a spontaneous popular expression, soon seen to be fallacious.
so armed in spirit, the belligerents could not dream of anything but total victory -- hence, the interminable, death-dealing years.
as the years showed, all-out war knows nothing of neutrality and little of international law. huge masses of men in collision means a pitiless, unprofessional war of attrition, fought not on fields but in trenches or foxholes or anywhere else as needed.
none of this had been foreseen. that nation-in-arms initiated by the french revolutionists in 1792 was too far back to remember and 44 years had elapsed since the previous european war, in 1870, which had been between armies in motion. in august 1914, the populations expected to hear about marches, sieges, and pitched battles. professional soldiers, reinforced by levies as needed, and carrying out planned campaigns, would decide the issue. many in france were sure that "we'll be in berlin in three months". the general staffs, at least among the allies, were not far from the same predictions. they expected cavalry to take part... and uniforms were still showy: the trousers of the french had been dyed red in germany; rifles and bayonets and field guns were of tried and tested patterns. german industrial advances upset all this "preparedness".
strategy failed on both sides. ... no plan, but a series of improvisations followed, ending in mutual stalemate along miles of disputed lines. this front was quickly a devastated area, strung with barbed wire and seamed with man-high dugouts, the trenches. the combatants, self-trained for the ordeal, lived in squalor -- mud, water, vermin -- in preparation for sorties designed to capture the opposing trench by annihilating its occupants. the over-the-top endeavor was prepared by bombardment -- a barrage of shells -- to reduce the opposition. casualties were in proportion to the scale of everything: 5000 men, perhaps, on a normal day when, as erich-maria remarque recorded in his famous novel years later, the communique read "on the western front, nothing new."
in the modern people-to-people fighting, men are expendable like powder and shells; they are important but less so than men and women in factories making ammunition. still more important are the material resources out of which to make it, the money to pay the bill, and the inventive talent to create better or novel weapons.
by the end of the war, boys of 16 were filling the gaps in the insatiable trenches. the use for the first time of troops from the african and asian colonies had not sufficed, but it marked the entry of third world settlers into the european nations. the hope never ceased that a sudden push on a broad front -- an "offensive" -- would dislodge enough of the enemy to cause a rout and end the war. the german effort at verdun in 1916 wiped out some 700,000 lives in four months and brought no decision; the same year at the somme, the british losses were 60,000 in one day.
fair warning had been given to all thinking people in the west by an english journalist named norman angell. in 1909 he had written a pamphlet entitled 'europe's optical illusion'. his thesis was simple: modern war between the great powers means a dead loss for both victor and vanquished. the pamphlet attracted wide attention, which led angell to expand it into a fully documented work retitled "the great illusion -- a study in the relation of military power in nations to their economic and social advantage". in it he quoted the words of leaders on all sides who entertained the great illusion. he showed that the existing ways of international finance put the wealth of one nation at the mercy of another. hostilities would ensure their common loss. colonies were no asset but a subsidized expense; annexing them or some part of a defeated country, or occupying it to levy tribute was yet more wasteful. besides, the cost of an up-to-date war would be ruinous. all the resources of all the participants would be drained dry. no nation and no individual would benefit from victory. a large-scale war in the 20th c would be suicide disguised as self-interest.
the argument was so clear, temperate and convincing that all who gave their minds to it believed it. but it is one thing to believe that one's previous idea is wrong and another to act on the newly-revealed right. habit, social pressures, a streak of fatalism conspire to keep action in the groove already dug. "the great illusion" was not heeded but enacted.