Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Guernica is not past

The painting by Picasso. The quote by Faulkner:
"The past is never dead. It's not even past."Posted by Picasa


This month (last Saturday to be exact) marks the 71st anniversary of the German bombing of Guernica, which essentially inaugurated the mass terror bombing of World War II. Five bombing raids with incendiary bombs dropped from primitive aircraft resulted in some 1650 deaths in this small market town in Spain. By the end of World War II, bombers and missiles killed thousands in London in the Blitz, and massive numbers of sophisticated aircraft and powerful bombs killed 100,000 mostly civilians in Dresden and 130,00 in Tokyo, before the atomic bombs killed at least 280,000 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Two generations later, much of the world has internalized the horror of that war, as well as the different but in some ways worse horrors of World War I. But America has not, argues Tony Judt in an indispensable article in the New York Review of Books. Some of our political thinkers even argue that such history--any history--is irrelevant as a guide to our present and future, because the bad old past is over, and things are different now.

So Judt asks the question in the title of his piece: "What Have We Learned, If Anything?" What's clear to him--and to me--is what we haven't learned: "In the US, at least, we have forgotten the meaning of war." One of the main reasons is that in the 20th century, we were lucky. War hardly touched us--not the World Wars, not even the waves of terrorism that Europe experienced, let alone other parts of the world. But even though the lessons of those wars are available to us in accounts, in eloquent writings and filmmaking, we haven't learned them. Instead, we are going through what we should have learned to avoid. For example:

"World War I led to an unprecedented militarization of society, the worship of violence, and a cult of death that long outlasted the war itself and prepared the ground for the political disasters that followed. States and societies seized during and after World War II by Hitler or Stalin (or by both, in sequence) experienced not just occupation and exploitation but degradation and corrosion of the laws and norms of civil society. The very structures of civilized life—regulations, laws, teachers, policemen, judges—disappeared or else took on sinister significance: far from guaranteeing security, the state itself became the leading source of insecurity. Reciprocity and trust, whether in neighbors, colleagues, community, or leaders, collapsed. Behavior that would be aberrant in conventional circumstances—theft, dishonesty, dissemblance, indifference to the misfortune of others, and the opportunistic exploitation of their suffering—became not just normal but sometimes the only way to save your family and yourself. Dissent or opposition was stifled by universal fear.

War, in short, prompted behavior that would have been unthinkable as well as dysfunctional in peacetime. It is war, not racism or ethnic antagonism or religious fervor, that leads to atrocity. War—total war—has been the crucial antecedent condition for mass criminality in the modern era. "

Americans fought and died in the two world wars--but Over There. Americans could observe what happened in those societies, but the lessons didn't take. We didn't experience what they experienced, starting with the extent of death and destruction.

"In World War II, when the US lost about 420,000 armed forces in combat, Japan lost 2.1 million, China 3.8 million, Germany 5.5 million, and the Soviet Union an estimated 10.7 million. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., records the deaths of 58,195 Americans over the course of a war lasting fifteen years: but the French army lost double that number in six weeks of fighting in May–June 1940...

But it is civilian casualties that leave the most enduring mark on national memory and here the contrast is piquant indeed. In World War II alone the British suffered 67,000 civilian dead. In continental Europe, France lost 270,000 civilians. Yugoslavia recorded over half a million civilian deaths, Germany 1.8 million, Poland 5.5 million, and the Soviet Union an estimated 11.4 million. These aggregate figures include some 5.8 million Jewish dead. Further afield, in China, the death count exceeded 16 million. American civilian losses (excluding the merchant navy) in both world wars amounted to less than 2,000 dead. "

So what does this mean?

"As a consequence, the United States today is the only advanced democracy where public figures glorify and exalt the military, a sentiment familiar in Europe before 1945 but quite unknown today. Politicians in the US surround themselves with the symbols and trappings of armed prowess; even in 2008 American commentators excoriate allies that hesitate to engage in armed conflict. I believe it is this contrasting recollection of war and its impact, rather than any structural difference between the US and otherwise comparable countries, which accounts for their dissimilar responses to international challenges today. Indeed, the complacent neoconservative claim that war and conflict are things Americans understand—in contrast to naive Europeans with their pacifistic fantasies—seems to me exactly wrong: it is Europeans (along with Asians and Africans) who understand war all too well. Most Americans have been fortunate enough to live in blissful ignorance of its true significance."

Judt writes in detail about how this also leads us to misjudge our enemies, particularly in the so-called war on terror. Another consequence is this administration's attitude to torture, which used to be the dividing line between democracies and dictatorships. " Torture really is no good, especially for republics. And as Aron noted many decades ago, "torture—and lies—[are] the accompaniment of war.... What needed to be done was end the war."
We are slipping down a slope. The sophistic distinctions we draw today in our war on terror—between the rule of law and "exceptional" circumstances, between citizens (who have rights and legal protections) and noncitizens to whom anything can be done, between normal people and "terrorists," between "us" and "them"—are not new. The twentieth century saw them all invoked. They are the selfsame distinctions that licensed the worst horrors of the recent past: internment camps, deportation, torture, and murder—those very crimes that prompt us to murmur "never again." So what exactly is it that we think we have learned from the past? Of what possible use is our self-righteous cult of memory and memorials if the United States can build its very own internment camp and torture people there? "

I would add something else to Judt's point: it's not only that Americans didn't experience war the way others did, it's also that America--with all these years of prosperity, access to education and information--is still so fond of being ignorant. We don't learn from history because we don't respect the ability to learn from history. We demand our leaders bowl well and be the kind of guy or gal you can have a shot and a beer with. Not that they know anything, or can bring any insight and intelligence to the problems that are killing us, and laying waste the world. Just so they talk tough. We'll keep at if it takes a hundred years! We'll totally obliterate them!

It's not like the lessons of war and the 20th century are unavailable. On TV the other night I happened to see some of Abel Gance's great 1919 film, J'Accuse. There are scenes of men killed in war rising up and returning to accuse those who profited by the war and their deaths (scenes that Gance used again in his 1937 remake.) Some of the men in those scenes were actual soldiers, who shortly afterwards were killed in battle. We are seeing the dead returning, literally. Asked the meaning of his film's title, Gance said: "I am accusing war. I am accusing man. I am accusing universal stupidity."

That was almost 90 years ago. And yet, this past week a story broke about retired military officers trotted out as experts by television news networks to explain the Iraq war and the war on terror, who were not only political instruments of the Cheney administration, but paid by companies profiting from the war. Said the New York Times: " The effort, which began with the buildup to the Iraq war and continues to this day, has sought to exploit ideological and military allegiances, and also a powerful financial dynamic: Most of the analysts have ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air." J'Accuse!

But these days the news media can't even be bothered to justify the war--they ignore it. They ignore that April has been the deadliest month in Iraq since last September. J'Accuse! Meanwhile, contractors who have made billions to reconstruct Iraq have cheated, lied, done shoddy work or didn't finish the job, and still got rich. J'Accuse! For all the good it will do.

Judt's article concludes:

" Far from escaping the twentieth century, we need, I think, to go back and look a bit more carefully. We need to learn again—or perhaps for the first time—how war brutalizes and degrades winners and losers alike and what happens to us when, having heedlessly waged war for no good reason, we are encouraged to inflate and demonize our enemies in order to justify that war's indefinite continuance. And perhaps, in this protracted electoral season, we could put a question to our aspirant leaders: Daddy (or, as it might be, Mommy), what did you do to prevent the war?"

That last sentiment in fact was a slogan in the 60s (though not a bumper sticker--no one would dare put it on the back of a car, if you wanted an intact windshield.) Our hope ultimately is today's young, like the black junior high age boy I saw the other day, wearing a t-shirt with the script familiar from the Star Wars movies, only the words said: "Stop Wars." But way before he is an adult, Americans have to come to grip with this failure to learn. Or it could be too late.