Belmont Club

And I Feel Fine

Ari Shavit’s evocative lede in today’s Haaretz is a reaction to the horror in Syria, He writes, “The End of the World is starting in Damascus … if civilians can be gassed to death in 2013, we face the end of the world that purports to be moral and enlightened”. Well perhaps the world was never really that enlightened to begin with: not even during the peace after the Second World War. People had simply had a bellyful of war and were momentarily intimidated into pacifism by the power of the hegemon, the United States.

WH Auden argued against imagining that we were ever innocent instead of being “simply children afraid of the night who have never been happy or good.” And now that America has gotten out of the hegemon business and the memories of those mid-20th horrors are fading — we can help stamp them out by beating the surviving World War 2 veterans to death out of boredom — it seems we’re ready to go again. Rupert Brooke described the kind of boredom that besets us. He felt it in the air as his generation embarked for the fronts of the Great War a hundred years ago:

To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!

We don’t want what we have, that little emptiness of love. Foreign Policy reports that Congressional doves are now contemplating doing some leaping of their own, authorizing US intervention in Syria after reports of the use of chemical weapons by Assad. This despite Congress being told by General Dempsey that there were no moderate rebel groups ready to fill any power vacuum there.

But even if there ain’t no swimming hole, still we want the feeling of cleanness and the leaping into that dried up crater. Decrying the lack of US action in Syria, one commenter at the Daily Mail said: “Where is America and the UK? No oil I suppose!!”

Humanity is funny in that way. The only acceptable justifications for war are intangible. You can kill people for a cause. To do it for food or oil, now that were immoral indeed.

Bill Gertz says Dempsey’s message is clear. “U.S. military intervention in Syria on behalf of Syria rebels fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime risks embroiling the United States and states in the region in a wider conflict, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a letter to Congress.”

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey provided a mainly negative assessment of U.S. military intervention and warned that joining the war in Syria could assist Islamist extremists, help them gain access to chemical weapons, and further erode U.S. military readiness, already suffering from sharp defense budget cuts.

Using force is “no less than an act of war,” Dempsey stated in the July 19 letter, adding that any use of force should be based on confidence that it will achieve the U.S. policy of ousting the Assad regime.

Strategy is optional today. Outrage is mandatory. The argument that the international use of force is both “war” and ought to require a concrete aim — perhaps even a plan for something called ‘victory’ — is a quaint, almost obsolete notion.

People do things for the most abstract reasons today. It shows our advancement. For example, The Guardian describes the pressing plight of the person formerly known as Bradley Manning, now known as ‘Chelsea’. Manning has expressed a burning desire to become a woman and be provided with hormone therapy to that end. “But Fort Leavenworth military prison in Kansas, where Manning is due to serve out her sentence, said on Thursday that it would not provide trans treatment beyond psychiatric support, in a move criticised as unconstitutional by activists and LGBT groups.”

The meanies. But the need for food seems less pressing than psychological fulfillment. By contrast to the front page treatment of Manning’s request,  only evil Fox News pushed the Army to reverse its closure of dining facilities serving multiple amputees recovering at Walter Reed.

The U.S. military has reversed a string of decisions that would have restricted access for severely wounded troops to a popular dining hall at Walter Reed hospital, after Fox News began reporting on complaints from veterans and their families.

The military earlier this month decided to invalidate meal tickets and reduce hours for the Warrior Cafe, the sole dining facility in building 62 — home to all multiple amputees and long-term, recovering patients at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

Forgotten already? Well they should get used to it. One of the most sobering things about reading history is realizing the ease with which the deaths of a millions can be forgotten in only a few decades. I am currently reading Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, by Peter Harmsen.  I recommend it heartily. Even if you thought you knew all there was to know about the Second World War, if you haven’t read up on the Sino-Japanese conflict, you’ve missed one of its principal roots.

The comparison to Stalingrad is by no means far-fetched. Nine hundred thousand troops on both sides fought a three month battle for the city. Almost 93,000 Japanese troops perished. A third of million of Chiang Kai-Shek’s best troops died opposing them.  That’s without counting the civilians who did in Nanjing, which fell as part of the battle.

You might be interested to learn that the Battle of Shanghai was arguably the start of World War 2 in the Pacific and the decisive battle of the as-yet-unfought Chinese Civil War. For one thing, it shifted the Japanese war effort south away from the Soviets. For another the battle doomed the Kuomintang because Chiang expended and destroyed his carefully built army in that tremendous furnace. Unable to find respite in the war years that followed, the KMT never recovered to fight Mao’s Red Army, which stayed away from major conflict with the Japanese and so was tanned, rested and ready by the end of it.

Perhaps even more astonishingly, the Japanese were in real danger of losing the Battle of Shanghai, in part because the Chinese Army was advised by German officers, some of whom were Jewish and fleeing from Hitler.

Interestingly, the Battle of Shanghai was precipitated by an incident involving the still unsolved murder of a Japanese officer which drew both sides into the vortex. Wikipedia writes of that murder, still mysterious after all these years:

Mao Tse-Tung biographers Chang and Halliday assert that Chinese Army General Zhang Zhizhong was a Communist Party sympathizer, and staged the Ōyama Incident, including bringing a Chinese soldier condemned for an unrelated crime and killing him with Lt. Ōyama’s gun, to heighten credibility. Chang and Halliday point out that Gen. Zhizhong defied orders in publicizing the incident widely with the news media after it happened. They also quote Mao as saying that all-out war between Japan and China would weaken Chiang Kai-Shek’s government, giving Mao’s less-numerous Communists an advantage. If true this sequence of events would mean that Mao instigated the Pacific War, against the wishes of the major combatants, at the cost of millions of lives.

Yet great as it was, the Battle of Shanghai is remembered only in little read books and in British Movietone reels. The same might be said of the Maginot Line. This terrific site brings it back to life, the casemates, cupolas, ouvrages, troop shelters, fields of fire, interior reconstructions. At the time of its construction the Maginot Line was the missile defense shield of the French Nation.

It was completely bypassed. And it too lies forgotten.

In the last few weeks it has seemed as if the pillars were coming down. Not the columns of marble or girders of steel that uphold the buildings of our great cities; but the things that once supported our mental universe. Rationality, honesty or even simple gratitude to those to who’ve lost their limbs in our defense seemingly count for nothing; replaced by a kind of manic obsession with psychological fulfillment, the need to be amused at casting off all the old taboos.

In our innermost sanctums are raised up altars to things that were once abhorred and dark flames are kindled before half-remembered gods, so that even if our temples look the same, all within has changed as if by some monstrous possession. We are told that this transformation is good because it is modern; which if true that would be a most astonishing thing. How did the novel return return as ‘good’ after good itself was banished, simply by being amusing?

Perhaps because what has returned today is neither new nor good at all. Both hatred and love, war and peace and salvation and damnation are old as mankind. Shavit is wrong. The world never ends. But it does get the periodic makeover.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity for $3.99, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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