Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Shields and Bobo on Bergdahl and D-Day

As much grief as I give Bobo and Mark Shields for their weekly recitation of Very Serious Pundit wisdom on the PBS Newshour Political Wrap, Mark sometimes rouses himself from his normal state of semi-slumber to say something worth hearing. Especially when the topic is war.

He didn't manage it last Friday, though: Shields and Brooks on Bergdahl criticism, Mississippi primary politics 06/06/2014. He and Bobo agreed that though they could wait to pass judgment on Bowe Bergdahl and that President Obama deserved to be criticized because, well, because the Republicans were criticizing him. Apparently Obama should have realized the the Republicans were going to trash him for whatever he did or didn't do about Bergdahl and therefore should have done something different, even though the Reps would attack him no matter what he did. So it's his fault. Or something.

Jack Shafer has a good piece on what the public can reasonably assume from what's in the public record, Bowe Bergdahl's court-martial by the press Reuters 06/03/2014, and the situation doesn't seem to have changed much in the last few days. Bobo and Sleepy Mark should keep their snarky judgments over Bergdahl and their silly justification of the Republican clown show around it to themselves, unless they actually can come up with something useful to say.

After their nonsense on the Bergdahl case, I wasn't favorably inclined toward Sleepy Mark's boy's comic-book description of the D-Day landing and the Second World War generally:

On D-Day, it was reaching? It was. It was an incredible — it was an incredible act.

And I think what — it’s not simply the war. The war was remarkable, Judy, in that there was an equality of sacrifice. It was universal. We absolutely all were engaged, whether it was the rationing of meat or gasoline or cigarettes or alcohol or whatever.

One-third of all the vegetables and fruit in the United States were raised in victory gardens, 20 million victory gardens. The four president sons, all four served in combat in World War II. It’s back to Lyndon Johnson and Chuck Robb, his son-in-law, before we have even seen anybody in the president’s family in battle.

So that — that was part of it. The other thing was, we usually acknowledge individual acts of great bravery, the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Silver Star. This was thousands upon thousands of American — all an act of just incredible collective and individual courage, I mean, going and landing on that Normandy beach, 80 miles of open water, the armaments, Pointe du Hoc, all of it.

It was remarkable. And the unity of the country at the time is something that we can just treasure and just covet.
Our Pod Pundits still practice a kind of glorification of war that was outdated and destructive even before the First World War.

The unity of war that Sleepy Mark wants us to "just treasure and just covet" was a unity of anger, fear and hatred. And that unity and the deference to authority that came with it led the country to do and tolerate things it shouldn't have. Like the massive civilian casualties in the "strategic bombing" whose actual results in terms of measurable military advantage was far more meager that air force boosts claim even today. Like interning Japanese-Americans in concentration camps.

A unity based on anger, fear and hatred, and unity in war based on the goal of killing millions of foreigners, is not something to glorify or blab sentimental nonsense about. It's just not.

Yes, wars bring out some of the best and most inspiring aspects of people: courage, self-sacrifice, inventiveness. With the right kind of leadership, they can open up opportunities for a better peace, which is ultimately the only legitimate goal of war.

William James' famous 1910 essay, "The Moral Equivalent of War" focuses on this paradox, or contradiction if you prefer. It came out four years before the First World War broke out in Europe, the greatest carnage that humanity had so far managed to stage. It took another couple of decades to surpass it. But the later carnage created that sweet national unity that Sleepy Mark wants us to "just treasure and just covet."

James' essay is short but full of provocative observations. A critic of American imperialism during the Philippine War, James expresses the hope that humanity can one day do away with war, though it does note repeatedly describe it as a Utopian aspiration in that essay:

It would be simply preposterous if the only force that could work ideals of honour and standards of efficiency into English or American natures should be the fear of being killed by the Germans or the Japanese. Great indeed is Fear; but it is not, as our military enthusiasts believe and try to make us believe, the only stimulus known for awakening the higher ranges of men's spiritual energy.
President Carter invoked James' notion of a moral equivalent of war in support of his energy programs. In which hope he was soon disappointed, unfortunately.

Here is part of how James describes the virtues he wants to channel from military to constructive peaceful pursuits:

We must make new energies and hardihoods continue the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings. Martial virtues must be the enduring cement; intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command, must still remain the rock upon which states arc built-unless, indeed, we wish for dangerous reactions against commonwealths fit only for contempt, and liable to invite attack whenever a centre of crystallization for military-minded enterprise gets formed anywhere in their neighborhood.

The war-party is assuredly right in affirming and reaffirming that the martial virtues, although originally gained by the race through war, are absolute and permanent human goods. Patriotic pride and ambition in their military form are, after all, only specifications of a more general competitive passion. They are its first form, but that is no reason for supposing them to be its last form. Men now are proud of belonging to a conquering nation, and without a murmur they lay down their persons and their wealth, if by so doing they may fend off subjection. But who can be sure that other aspects of one's country may not, with time and education and suggestion enough, come to be regarded with similarly effective feelings of pride and shame? Why should men not some day feel that it is worth a blood-tax to belong to a collectivity superior in any ideal respect? Why should they not blush with indignant shame if the community that owns them is vile in any way whatsoever?
James showed considerably more insight into the horrors of war and the problem of glorifying it that Sleepy Mark did last Friday when he wrote in his essay:

There is something highly paradoxical in the modern man's relation to war. Ask all our millions [in America], north and south, whether they would vote now (were such a thing possible) to have our war for the Union expunged from history, and the record of a peaceful transition to the present time substituted for that of its marches and battles, and probably hardly a handful of eccentrics would say yes. Those ancestors, those efforts, those memories and legends, are the most ideal part of what we now own together, a sacred spiritual possession worth more than all the blood poured out. Yet ask those same people whether they would be willing in cold blood to start another civil war now to gain another similar possession, and not one man or woman would vote for the proposition.
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