One can measure the failures of the film American Beauty in so many ways, but perhaps the best is to realize that the screenwriter was so unsure of his audience’s ability to spot a creep that he had to make Kevin Spacey’s next-door neighbor not just a sadist and a closet case but also a collector of Nazi memorabilia. I bring this up because a fetish for the baubles of fascism is generally thought to be a good way of alienating civilized company. The auction house Christie’s refuses to sell the stuff. And whatever the interpretative fallacies of the late Susan Sontag, she was surely onto something when she spotted the correlation between this form of “collecting” and pornography.
So when Human Rights Watch first learned that Marc Garlasco, its senior military analyst and a former Pentagon official, moonlights on the internet as “Flak 88,” an obsessive buyer and chronicler of Nazi war paraphernalia, it might have understood right away that it had a public relations crisis on its hands. Instead, the NGO did what it always does when confronted with embarrassing questions about its personnel: it blamed supporters of Israel.
Charging that critics of HRW have accused Garlasco of being a Nazi or an anti-Semite, though failing to cite any of these critics by name, the statement HRW put out read: “This accusation is demonstrably false and fits into a campaign to deflect attention from Human Rights Watch’s rigorous and detailed reporting on violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by the Israeli government. Garlasco has co-authored several of our reports on violations of the laws of war, including in Afghanistan, Georgia, and Iraq, as well as by Israel, Hamas, and Hezbollah.” Furthermore, HRW insisted, Garlasco “is the author of a monograph on the history of German Air Force and Army anti-aircraft medals and a contributor to websites that promote serious historical research into the Second World War (and which forbid hate speech).”
HRW’s push-back was followed by Garlasco’s own attempt at self-defense in the Huffington Post to depict himself as a serious military historian, an avocation he attributes to having had two relatives serve on either side during the war. Garlasco wrote as if he had no idea his behavior could bemuse or offend anybody, going so far as to suggest that his after-hours hobby bolsters his work as a professional military investigator and analyst. For that reason, he said, he has never hidden his side gig from anyone “because there’s nothing shameful in it, however weird it might seem to those who aren’t fascinated by military history.”
Clearly, however, he has not been all that transparent with his employer, as HRW has just decided to suspend him, with pay, pending an internal investigation in which it hopes to “learn everything we need to know,” in the words of spokesperson Carroll Bogart. Well, what else could HRW need to know given that strongly worded press release?
Garlasco’s extracurricular activity has been well documented by Omri Ceren at the blog Mere Rhetoric and by NGO Monitor, after both trudged through thousands of comments that “Flak 88” posted to the websites German Combat Awards and Wehrmacht-awards. (No evidence could be found of Garlasco’s alter ego posting to any Allied-related military forums, nor has he or HRW offered up any evidence of his having done so). In these posts, Garlasco, whose screen icon is an image of a German badge with a swastika, enthuses over his personal collection of Nazi knickknacks; he says he takes out his German war medals once a year to marvel at and photograph them.
A 2005 comment has him replying to a picture of a leather SS jacket as follows: “That is so cool! The leather SS jacket makes my blood go gold as it is so COOL!”—which is only exceeded in luridness by the response this elicited by the jacket’s owner: “Great feedback mein Freund. … Gott mit uns [God is with us]!” (With whom, exactly, one wonders? And does HRW truly believe that, whatever disclaimers these sites may have on hate speech, they do not cater to a prodigious market of pro-Nazi sympathizers?)
Most disturbingly, Garlasco has proudly displayed a photo of himself on one of these sites wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the Iron Cross — a military decoration used by Prussia since the Napoleonic Wars, although his particular iteration was the one preferred by the Third Reich. When told by another commenter that a person could be arrested or beaten up on the streets of Berlin for wearing such a garment, Garlasco’s reply was: “Everyone thinks it is a biker shirt!” Did I mention he was standing beside his young daughter when this adorable vignette was captured?
Supreme disingenuousness or autistic misjudgment seems to be this man’s lot in life. Since being found out, Garlasco has accurately but insufficiently described such effusions as “juvenile” and “tasteless” but really the harmless side effects suffered by a serious scholar. To date, he has published just one book, The Flak Badges of the Luftwaffe and Heer, put out by an obscure press known as B&D Publishing LLC, whose website carries the evocative URL ironcross1939.com. Contrary to Garlasco’s claim that his volume is intended as a contribution to the field of military scholarship, according to the product description at Amazon, “the novice and expert collector alike will benefit from this ground-breaking treatment.” Even David Irving, the English historian who openly wishes World War II had gone the other way, aims at peer-reviewed works, not chapbooks for fanatics of totalitarian kitsch. As several observers have noted, the covers of all B&D Publishing’s titles are a little too ennobling of the German soldiers who grace them — and I do mean grace.
Consider, too, that Garlasco admitted in one of his gothic forums to being queasy about publishing his monograph under his own name for fear that it might jeopardize his career:
Flak88: So I am trying to figure out what to do. My book is clsoe to done, but I am not sure if I should put my name on it. If folks at work found out I might very well lose my job. That is the reality, so don’t dwell on it — ok? But this is a small group of people — should I worry? And shouldn’t I stand up for myself? And if I use a psyeudonym isn’t that worse, like I am trying to hide something?
To this, one commenter responded helpfully: “Don’t forget in the foreword to mention how terrible war is and that your book is to remind people of this fact. Yes, WE all know this but a lot of non-historically minded people might not understand otherwise.” A cynic might conclude that Garlasco’s morally affirming note about Nazi defeat in his foreword is not the proof of innocuous intent that HRW takes it to be.
Indeed, the last three months have been hard for this organization. It’s been shown to flaunt its antagonism of Israel for fundraising purposes with wealthy Saudis; to hire radicals who attend Zionism Equals Racism conferences organized by Saddam Hussein to investigate the Jewish state’s conduct of war; and to have current or former board members complain that it’s gone well beyond its original mandate of examining closed societies while adopting a tin-eared approach to presenting allegations of human rights abuses in the only true open society in the Middle East.
Lest one think that only those with an overriding concern for the Netanyahu government have sealed Marc Garlasco’s fate, there is the following conclusion from Helena Cobban, an Advisory Committee member with HRW for 17 years and definitely no apologist for Israel: “To my mind, this does not prove that Garlasco’s a ‘Nazi sympathizer’, or an anti-Semite. But his participation on these sites — including interactions there with people who clearly do seem to be Nazi sympathizers — is extremely disturbing in itself.” Cobban went to the trouble of contacting Iain Levine, the head of all of HRW’s programs, to inquire if Garlasco’s “hobby” was in fact common knowledge at the job. It wasn’t, Levine told her, until last Tuesday.
Might it be the case, then, that all the evidence amassed is enough to convince even a deeply compromised NGO that not every criticism of its work or its staff is a Zionist plot? Sometimes — just sometimes — HRW has an HR problem.