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Works and Days

Catching up With Correspondence

June 20th, 2008 - 1:58 pm

I enjoy reading the posts and private emails, and here are some reactions, both to supporters and angry detractors.

World War II

I did not write that Buchanan is either a racist or an anti-Semite, only that his views on World War II are profoundly wrong—and wrong in a fashion we have not witnessed in a long time (perhaps since A.J.P. Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War, which was, I think, far better argued).

We should remember that almost everything that Hitler said was either later contradicted by his actions or simply false or unhinged. In Italy as Gen. Kesselring was retreating, Hitler’s minion Himmler ordered the German high command there both to start rounding up Italian Jews (well over 10,000 were gassed in the camps), while Hitler lectured about avoiding blowing the river bridges in the face of advancing Americans and British on the grounds that they were of historic and artistic importance. We forget that was his method: to assemble thugs and murderers to carry out his butchery while he talked of art and culture and peace.

So it is not hard to find an isolated quote or act on Hitler’s part that seemingly suggests civilized considerations or by a great stretch might mitigate his entire and sole responsibility for millions of dead. But overall most disinterested historians and observers can see that there would have been no World War II without the career of Hitler in the 1930s.

As far as the Jewish issue, revisionists must accept that given the 6 million gassed in studied industrial fashion, neither quite seen before nor after, any suggestion that World War II was preventable had Hitler been treated with more consideration of his supposed legitimate grievances can only be interpreted as a certain callousness. While true that prior to 1939 Hitler had killed few Jews, his eugenics were well known and Nazi Jewish cleansing in business, universities, and public life was well under way in such a fashion that the later camps were logical, not an aberrant artifact of the war.

The Neocon Slur

Much of the correspondence centers on “neocon,” as in Buchanan’s wrong label “neocon court historian”. I’ve written no biography of any administration official, much less been subsidized or asked to do any particular writing to further an administration goal. I have been to the White House only on 3-4 occasions, always accompanied by a larger group of historians of widely differing views.

Neocon means “new conservative” and I suppose refers to those of the once hard left who, largely in distrust of the Soviet Union and disillusionment with Great Society programs, moved right, most prominently during the Reagan era. Buchanan himself worked with them in the Reagan White House, and I would imagine supported their tough, correct stance on rollback, and the questioning of 1960s entitlements.

The word became a pejorative slur with gusto in 2003 with the lead-up to Iraq. Perhaps some essays by neo-cons questioning the motives and patriotism (wrongly I think) of paleo-cons accentuated the falling out. But the big break came in 2004-6 with the insurgency in Iraq, when neocon became de facto synonymous with “Jew” and there were overt efforts to tie Kristol, Perle, Wolfowitz, Feith and others to a sort of covert cabal that had forced us to go to war for Israel—this despite the fact that Bush, Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld and Rice were neither Jews nor neocons nor malleable dupes. That Francis Fukuyama, James Woolsey, or Bill Bennet were neocons seemed likewise to have had little effect on the Israel “amen corner” thesis.

I came to support neocon approaches first in the wars against the Taliban and Saddam, largely because I saw little alternative—in a post-9-11 effort to stop radical Islam and state sponsors of terror—to removing such odious enemies, and did not think leaving the defeated in power (as in 1991), or leaving in defeat (as in Lebanon), or installing a postbellum strongman was viable or in U.S. interests.

Few would agree, but I persist in thinking we will prevail in Iraq, and the consensual government there will not only survive, but have a positive effect throughout the region, finally give the Iraqi people hope for a civilized future, stop Iraq’s transference of petrodollars into dangerous arsenals, worry the theocrats in Iran, and remove Iraq as a perennial threat to its neighbors.

I have always detested communism, and have never been a hard-left, disillusioned Trotskyite, but rather a conservative Democrat. In the past, my only real political jousting had been in two areas, academia in which Who Killed Homer?” questioned postmodernism and contemporary leftwing academic theory, and in books on farming such as The Land Was Everything and Letters to an American Farmer, which were defenses of the agrarian tradition and won no support from either corporate agriculture or new-age organic growers who did not like the conservative rural ethos expressed. Much of my speaking in the 1990s was to small audiences of farmers, who were being squeezed by corporate subsidized agriculture and yet were not new-age, organic leftists. Mexifornia reflects that conservative worry about the effects of unchecked illegal immigration–at a time when many or most neo-cons were Wall-Street Journal open-borderites.

I thought the 1998 letter to Clinton asking for regime change and an attack on Saddam was wrong, but, after 9/11, came to the conclusion, like 75% of Americans, that there would never be peace in the region, nor a chance to rollback Islamic radicalism with Saddam’s terrorist-sponsoring regime in power. The 12 years of no-fly-zones, embargo, oil-for-food, and UN sanctions were not only weakening and losing support, but playing into the hands of our enemies.

I remember in 1998 being called by a news agency about preemption, given that I had written a book about Sherman and Patton, The Soul of Battle, but replied that I didn’t think starting a war with Saddam was wise or would garner public support. That said, I also remember being in Greece in 1998-9 and losing a number of Greek friends over the Clinton bombing of Belgrade, which I supported on grounds that it was clumsy, but apparently the only way to stop mass killing. Remember at that time, none on the Left damned Clinton for taking us to war without UN sanction or a Congressional ratification. And firebrands like Gen. Wesley Clark did and said things far more provocative than anything the sober and judicious Gen. Petraeus has yet uttered.

I disagreed with many of the decisions made about the Iraq war, and voiced them several times in print during the last few years—especially the concentration on WMD rather than on all 23 Congressional writs to go to war, the pull-back from Fallujah, the fiery “bring ‘em on” rhetoric that sometimes was not followed up by equally aggressive action, the mysterious sudden retirement of Tommy Franks as soon as the insurgency started, the inability to find generals who believed they could win the peace, and a number of other issues.

Disbanding the army was a mistake in the short-term, I think, not because purging Saddam’s high officers was unwise (it will eventually pay dividends), but largely due to the failure of finding jobs immediately for military-age soldiers with dangerous skills. I did not think that sending another 100,000 troops was either feasible or even wise in the long term, but supported the much smaller 30,000 surge, largely because it sent a message of determination, came with Gen. Petraeus, and ushered in a change of tactics. We forget that many who were demanding the present surge, were demanding a much larger one, well beyond our force capability.

In the end, Gen. Abezaid’s policy of keeping a light footprint may be proven right, but ironically only by the Petraeus surge of 30,000 more troops to provide a window of Iraqi security. Ironic I say because while the two’s views should be antithetical, they may end up being complementary.

But unlike some other critics, I never thought such lapses were either fatal to our cause, or by any standard unusual in military history. I took issue with those who had supported the war, and then suddenly abandoned it, and with the thinking that a brilliant three-week campaign reflected their views, while a botched occupation could only have belonged to others. Rather, I assumed that the US military would always find a way to win, that the victory would be of enormous importance, and that while observers should point out perceived mistakes in operations, it was easy to do so from the rear and such criticism should never reach a level to cause a loss of morale either here or abroad, especially while soldiers were in the field of fire.

What If History

I admire counter-factual thought exercises and have contributed to a number of such volumes myself. I agree with Buchanan that Stalin’s regime was every bit as monstrous as Hitler’s, and given the size and natural wealth of the Russian Empire, and the greater prostylizing efforts of global communism, in theory as, or more, dangerous. Long ago I wrote about the irony (voiced by George Patton) of fighting to save Eastern Europe from totalitarianism and ending up by ensuring it there.

But all that said, as many readers so eloquently pointed out, by the mid-1930s, given the innate doctrines of Nazism and the career of Hitler, I don’t think there were very many options given allied leaders. A review of the 1930s again and again shows efforts to the nth degree in France and England to disown World War I, to vow peace at all costs, and to send a message to Hitler that they would never repeat the Somme and Verdun. Other than Churchill’s influential realism, there were almost no prominent allied leaders in France or Britain who tried to galvanize their countries to oppose Nazism expansionism.

Once Hitler invaded Poland, the last chance to prevent a global conflagration would have been to launch an immediate invasion in the West, to cross the Rhine with well over 100 British and French divisions. It would have been touch-and-go, but might well have stopped Hitler and precluded the disastrous chain of events that followed. The Soviet Union and Japan, we forget, became formal or de facto allies or at least non-belligerents of Hitler largely on what they had seen in 1936-9, coming away with the lesson that the allies were weak and decadent and European fascism was the wave of the future and thus in some way should be joined or at least accommodated.

Obamiana

Some wrote that I was obsessed with Obama. Curious is a better word. I can’t think (readers help please) of a presidential candidate in the 20th century (not Carter, not Harding) so unprepared to be president.

The comparison with the young Congressman, Senator, student of history, and war veteran JFK proves the opposite.

By the same token, I persist in thinking that the novels, plays, and films comparing Bush to a Nazi or in some way deserving of assassination were both reprehensible and unprecedented, surely more than the hatred expressed for Nixon, Reagan, or Clinton. And I think such genres should and will stop with Obama. Indeed, one of the most startling developments in recent memory will be the utter about-face (compare already the Obama rejection of beloved federal campaign financing, his backtracking on the war timetable, etc.) of the liberal media. It would be incensed if one did to a President OBama what has been done to Bush. Suggesting that the Right in this instance does the same I don’t think is persuasive. Even the mainstream hysterical Clinton haters, here or abroad, did not write columns praying for a John Wilkes Booth to return.

The election

I think the Obama lead will widen, but that by October we will see a certain learning curve, in which the race will hinge on how quickly Obama discovers how to be prudent versus his dally gaffes and astounding pronouncements on education, geography, world affairs, race relations, and prior associates.

In key states, I don’t think he will learn fast enough and that will make the difference, as we saw in the latter primaries. I meet more and more prudent and centrist voters, who are impressed by Obama’s rhetoric and sympathetic to the notion of an African-American president and the undeniable symbolism it entails, but simply won’t entrust their country to someone of such marginal experience and dubious past associates.

A final thought. Both McCain and Obama are change/reform candidates with ample rhetoric about a kinder, gentler politics. That said, let’s see how really different this campaign becomes. I suspect it will be every bit as nasty and tough as 2004 on both sides.

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