An Unnatural Peace

In Shakespeare’s Henry V, which reaches its denouement with the victory of King Hal and the English “happy few” over the mighty French Army at Agincourt (the 600th anniversary of which was celebrated only a few days ago), the final scenes occur in a French palace. Henry meets with King Charles of France in order to make peace, specifically by marriage to Charles’ daughter Katharine which will see the English rights to France cemented by the glue of dynastic intermarriage. The Duke of Burgundy, the scion of another line of the French Royal family and technically a vassal of the French crown, is there to act as interlocutor for the peace negotiations due to his dukedom’s size and importance. Shakespeare writes for him a vivid speech filled with descriptive imagery; while a minor character, Burgundy conjures up, in a play which (itself admits) relies on imagination to set the scenery, a stark vision of a land and people sapped by conflict. After ruminating on the wastage of agriculture and the countryside’s bounty by weeds and a lack of hands to maintain it, Burgundy laments the state of France’s people:

“And as our vineyards, fallows, meads and hedges,
Defective in their natures, grow to wildness,
Even so our houses and ourselves and children
Have lost, or do not learn for want of time,
The sciences that should become our country;
But grow like savages,–as soldiers will
That nothing do but meditate on blood,–
To swearing and stern looks, diffused attire
And every thing that seems unnatural.”

Burgundy’s lines are timeless, though perhaps, in a later industrialized and urbanized age, the image of fallow fields does not raise the same emotive force, especially where the specters of famine have been mostly extinguished or resigned in the western conscious to obscure conflicts in the Sahel and other faraway places. At least in the West, such residual devastation is seen more pertinently in the rubble of the great industrial centers of Europe and Asia that were sometimes literally bombed flat in the Second World War, and are more plainly visible in the scenes of the Syrian Civil War that have mostly featured the battle over cities like Homs, Aleppo, Dara, and Idlib. Yet, such wastage to livelihoods, and the social carryover of this despoil to the local people, and especially the children, remains extremely concerning.

The statistical probability and roots of terrorism and radicalism in a refugee world characterized by want and brutality are contested by academics, but it certainly does make fodder for a difficult kind of childhood and social development, and can create lasting scars and inter-communal rivalries that can prove fodder for violence and occasional mass atrocity. Afghanistan’s Taliban, many of whose initial fighters were displaced Pashtuns living in Pakistan during the anti-Soviet jihad, grew up in a world marked by uncertainty and a limitation of opportunity, with the main artery of educational opportunity through the rigidly-conservative Deobandi madrassahs.  Likewise, for a whole generation of German farmers and townsmen in the main arteries of fighting during the Thirty Years War, the constant presence of foreign soldiers and the want induced by sustaining large armies on the land meant that a career in one of the military camps was the best route out of the uncertainty of being the perpetual victim of harassment, and bands of demobbed soldiers remained a threat to German commerce for several years after the cessation of hostilities. An exponential rise in extrajudicial violence, juvenile delinquency, and a variety of other social ills was noted in the aftermath of Allied liberation across Europe, particularly as young partisans and displaced persons took revenge on their oppressors and on collaborators.

Local authorities often proved incapable of delivering measured retribution or providing security, and in all cases it was only the existence and intervention of well-armed moderating forces that was able to stem (at least initially) the breakdown of society where institutions had been swept away, families separated and destroyed, and the centers of justice were in turmoil. Even with the occupational authorities after major wars, a fair amount of savagery continued outside the remit or the physical ability of authorities to contain it.  The fear of such sustained brutality for populations has become keen, especially where devolved power and the capacity for violence opens an opportunity for greater destabilization of entire regions, and the revived consciousness of great power competition has made such internecine struggles increasingly alarming.

Hence, we hear, in Burgundy’s speech, the concerned voice of the world’s powers today. The underlying concerns are put more directly in the realpolitik analysis spoken by one of Jean Larteguy’s French Paratroopers in The Centurions “On this over-populated earth, where distance has been abolished, we can hardly afford an anarchy 600 million strong.” However, the altruism of Burgundy’s lines are historically bankrupt; Burgundian Dukes were willing to ally with the English against their French kinsmen for the aggrandizement of their increasingly militarized authority within France (under the reign of the mentally unstable King Charles), and it was under their supervision that Joan of Arc was given over to the English and the stake.

I’ve thought about this increasingly in regards to Syria. With Russia’s intervention and the dangerously high stakes of concurrent American, European, Turkish, Russian, Iranian, Saudi, and Syrian activities within the country, it now seems as if some mediation and external agreement must be made in order to prevent a clash, and to the further destabilization of the region from the weak state conditions that allowed foreign fighters on both sides to enter the conflict and for local ethnic and political interests to take precedence over the battle for pan-national destiny.

It does not take much for the international community to see Syria as a font of danger in the form of radical networks and the diffusion of weapons and training to forces capable of bringing their expertise in violence to other areas of the globe, nor does it take much to see that a whole generation of young Syrians, the hope for their country’s future, are being brought up to hate and fear their own countrymen, and in some instances to despise the very idea of a country at all.  The danger is very real that a generation of Syrians may be lost, or, at the least, that many will struggle their entire lives with the destruction wrought by the war: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. It is well past due for the conflict to end, and only a psychopath or a blind fanatic could hope for a better result out of a continuation of the current mess, save for those who see in the intervention of foreign powers the opportunity to cling to power or to gain it.

We confront a host of Burgundys, each lamenting the horror of the war and each with a narrower interest in the field of arms (and that includes the American one as well). Four years and hundreds of thousands dead have yet to close the conflict with anything resembling sure victory for any side (though Assad’s forces was arguably in great and steady peril until very recently). Instead the ulcer has simply bled on and infected the entirety of the region with ethnic and religious strife; at this point, the desire to control the violence might finally bring hardened international pressure on the local players. Such deconflicting in Bosnia-Herzegovina could only be accomplished with the agreement of international and regional powers, backed up with punitive airstrikes and enduring guarantees of international peacekeeping.

The baffling inconsistencies of American and Russian policy make this seem unlikely. In the same week, American Secretary of Defense Carter said America was not launching combat missions in Iraq, and then said American troops were likely to be in combat. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov claimed Russia was willing to support the Free Syrian Army with airstrikes, as elements of the Free Syrian Army was being bombed by Russian planes. The credibility of all the major international arbitrators is in serious doubt. It is also unclear how much guarantees for protection would do, given the coalition nature of the FSA (including Jihadist elements) and the destabilizing presence of ISIS in the region as both a source of chaotic terrorism and excuse for operations on the parts of all the major players (Russia and Turkey have both hit ISIS, but mostly their primary opposition and Kurdish opponents first and foremost).

Such flashpoints have in past been controlled by physically separating peoples, building walls, and dividing up nations with occupational zones and granting potentially volatile autonomy. Such geographic and demographic solutions will be, at best, born out of necessity and everyone will know it, and there are already fears that, as in Bosnia, the program of ethnic cleansing will be accelerated with this knowledge (allegations have already begun against the Kurds in Arab areas). What too could a divided Syria look like? Bosnia is, tragically, proving to be a bad model, with systemic economic problems and the threat of renewed violence from ethnic nationalists.

The final and more alarming question is that of self-determination for peoples mutually suspicious, under great stress, and yet not without some stake in a future where they might prosper. How can future Syrians (especially the Sunni opposition who support the FSA) accept an internationally-imposed peace as legitimate, save only through exhaustion and the desire for peace at any price? Can they trust the foreign armies or their own (especially given the mutual atrocities committed)? Even if they do, it is doubtful that it will be, without massive economic restoration and an avenue for those displaced persons and their children to realize national stability and emotional security, a Syria that can confidently reassert self-determination, beholden as some portion of it will be to every national agenda in the international settlement.

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On PM Abe’s 70th Anniversary Speech

Today, the 70th Anniversary of the Japanese Surrender to the Allies in World War II, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave a speech-the full text of which can be read here (in English)-commemorating the end of the war, and remarking upon the legacy. This speech has been the epicenter of much recent speculation by public commentators across the globe; such an immensely complex historical events are colored by the recent policies of Abe’s government which have begun to expand the limits of the use of power by the Japanese Self Defence Forces, curtailed heavily since 1945.

It also is immensely important in the nationalist politics of Northeast Asia, particularly in terms of Sino-Japanese and Koreo-Japanese relations, which have long been strained over the historic culpability Japan has in the eyes of the Korean and Chinese populations, both North and South, CCP and Kuomintang alike, for its military-driven expansion from 1910 to 1945. PM Abe’s past visits to the controversial pro-nationalist Yasukuni Shrine, his writings, and his right-wing political language, which in some way rejected the more self-denying narratives of past administrations, have all been seen as tantamount to slipping towards renewed Japanese nationalism, and a major stumbling block to pan-Asiatic reconciliation.

The speech turned out to be a continuity of the ambiguity of Japanese historical memory when it comes to the reasons for and the legacy of the war. There is no reason, in my opinion, to be overly-critical of this result; the text of a speech that seeks to admit culpability for the war but also seeks to restore and preserve some degree of national self-recognition for sacrifices and suffering undertaken in that war is a balancing act of politics, foreign and domestic, under the emotive weight of historical memory.

There were key moments, bound to please both sides (and thence revolt the other): Abe began by reminding the world that Japan had been the first native Asiatic power to beat European Colonists at their own game of a major modern war (Russia in 1905), which “gave encouragement to many people under colonial rule from Asia to Africa”, a fact that, while true (see the introduction to Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire) also rings somewhat closer to a justification that Japanese military expansion was seeking to create “The Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” for the benefit of Asians under the heal of Europeans imperialism. “Asia for the Asians” is a justification preached at the Yasukuni Shrine.

Such pluralist visions are hideously false to the peoples of Korea, which Japan annexed and then forcefully occupied in 1910, and of China, whose memories of Japan’s invasion in the midst of their violent Civil War include the wholesale atrocities (which Japanese textbooks have been accused of downplaying) and somewhat flimsy justifications for invasions that the Japanese refer to, perhaps cooly understating the fact, as “incidents”.  The history of Asiatic co-prosperity was far from plural, something that the Koreans, who feel they were treated as second class citizens in their own land, much as Poles were under Nazi Occupation, are especially keen to point out in the issue of Korean women forced into sexual service for the benefit of Japanese troops.

The reference to global economic policies from the Depression provoking Japanese isolation is too a historical aphorism, but not one giving much credence to the racial and authoritarian hierarchies of Japanese society after the First World War which played a part in Japanese expansion. The Army’s ties to the Emperor’s cult of leadership especially, which played a large part in Japan strategic vision of itself as an Asiatic landpower, directed the offensive strategies into Manchuria and then south into China. The movement of Japanese settlers into Manchuria and the Japanese annexation and administration of Korea were efforts at expansion and assimilation in Japanese-dominated Asia. Primarily about aggrandizement, the pan-Asian motives, at the time, were as pure as the white man’s burden in his colonialism. Subsequently, of course, that logic is seen as less than pure.

The narrative is not totally false; European economic chokeholds on the Japanese as they sought victory in China provoked the Pacific War in 1941. As shocking an act as it might be, Pearl Harbor was essentially a swift offensive-defensive move as a theater of a wider Japanese strategy, hoping to knock the United States out quickly and then rapidly collapse European colonies before the USA could adequately respond, leaving it in an extremely unfavorable position. Strategically flawed when this proved operationally incomplete, the Pacific War (especially the bombing of the home islands) became a driver of Japan’s strategic defeat in toto, but still was only one portion of it. Mainland China, save for a brief period in 1944, held down more Japanese troops than the Pacific ever did.  Japan’s war of necessity was really in defense of its wars of choice in China and Vietnam.

Japanese Expansion By December 6th, 1941.

Japanese Expansion By December 6th, 1941.

On the other hand, the speech was keen to reflect that suffering, and efforts at reconciliation, extended over the whole of Asia; China was singled out for special mention, both for the deaths of millions of its citizens (compounded by the civil strife that had already economically devastated large regions of the country) and for the return of Japanese orphans from Manchuria to Japan after the war.  The speech also promised that:

“We have engraved in our hearts the histories of suffering of the people in Asia as our neighbours: those in Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, and Taiwan, the Republic of Korea and China, among others; and we have consistently devoted ourselves to the peace and prosperity of the region since the end of the war.”

Whether it’s empty or not, the sentiment, from an American perspective, seems in the right place. At least it was not a nationalist justification, as some had greatly feared, and there was no abdication of responsibility for the war crimes which many Japanese officers and officials were imprisoned and executed for (which may prove a double edged sword as the issue was skirted entirely).

In the United States, we call this day VJ (Victory over Japan day) and spend most of our historical energies in celebration of the victory and in re-addressing the old question about the morality and efficacy of ending the war by dropping two atomic weapons on Japanese cities, to say nothing of the prolonged campaign on incendiary bombing that reduced Japanese urban and industrial centers to burning rubble. America’s occupation and subsequent cultural influence over Japan has closed and smoothed much of the alienation which might have been the inevitable result of one of the most brutal conflicts in human history. The mass bombings, the abuse of prisoners, the taking of bodily trophies, the interning of entire populations (almost universally loyal citizens), the use of atomic weapons all are hideous results of the dehumanizing understanding that Americans and Japanese people had of each other in 1941.

It is remarkable that I have been able to grow to know and to love Japanese men and women without the tinge of that historical enmity, and the cultural exchanges between our people has certainly enriched my life, especially the writings of Murakami and Mishima. the films of Kurosawa and Shindo, and the history, art, and philosophy of antique Japan.

I, however, do not live with the economic and social (material) ramifications of it as poignantly as many Asians do. America did win the Pacific War, at great cost to be sure (including my Great Great Uncle) but not the utter devastation and loss experienced by Japan. To the Chinese and Korean states, Japanese targeted persecution and destruction of their national identities and political existence cannot be wholly forgiven, especially with the resulting divisions of Japanese occupation which laid the groundwork for the Cold War power contests that extended the suffering of their populations well beyond 1945, resulting in ongoing strategic dramas along the DMZ and in the Straits of Taiwan.  To these peoples and their leaders, Japanese imperialism, like Western imperialism, has retarded the growth and extent of national destiny, especially given the economic disparity Japan enjoyed over its former conquests and most of Asia until comparatively recently.

In his history of Asia’s Wars from 1911 to 1949, SCM Paine has written that Americans often have difficulty seeing the full extent of the historical contexts of the Pacific War, focusing in a limited sense upon the role of The United States, Britain, and Australia at the expense of the Chinese and Russians. I admit that my own understanding of Japan’s militarism did not factor the role of the Soviet Union (which waged a limited 1939 war against Japanese expansion into Soviet-protected Mongolia before invading Manchuria and Korea in 1945), the full extent of American, British, and Dutch strangle-holds over Japan’s material requirements for both home prosperity and its long war in China, or the interest of the Allies in keeping Japan away from intervention (and economic disruption to western markets) in China’s Civil Wars. Certain counter-narratives often are problematic as well, whether the controversy over Iris Cheng’s Rape of Nanking or the Chinese Communist Party’s taking lion share in the credit for defeating Japan, when in fact they fought in unwilling coalition with the Nationalists under Chang Kai-Shek, and also did disproportionately less of the fighting than the Nationalists did.

I am willing to concede that Japan’s narrative need not be singled out for some unique expansionism for which it must profusely apologize; when I see images of Japanese farmers trying to dig a life out of Manchuria’s soil on a government settlement scheme, I am not unaware that such resembles American agrarian and cultural expansion into the western North American continent (with similar frontier metaphors). Perhaps the only difference is the relative political weight that China and Korea now have as compared to the Sioux Nation.

Japanese Poster for Manchurian Settlement

Japanese Poster for Manchurian Settlement

Yet it also proves that there is a layered complexity to any historic argument about causation, perhaps more than can be reconciled in a pithy public speech. In that sense, perhaps, this is absolutely about politics now, and very little about history, which is itself a haunting precipitant to action, but more abstract than Hamlet’s father’s ghost.  Yesterday’s historical epics and tomorrow’s tragedies alike are based, as Japanese writer Murakami wrote, on “an endless battle of contrasting memories.”

In sum then, PM Abe’s speech was a continuity which affirmed little, but also cast nothing to the wind. Diplomatically there will be much wrangling over contexts and sincerity, but for my part I thought that it represented a continuum which ought to challenge us all to consider our national courses and the guiding whys. Yet, the drama of the war is not concluded after 70 years, and no event is truly in a emotive vacuum to be dissected with objective perfection, so perhaps this is a bit naive.

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On Principle and Expediency in Syria and Iraq

The intervention of Turkey in Syria has come as a “FINALLY” moment for many of us watching the Syrian Crisis, for good or for ill. The reasoning behind the long delay of Turkish movement to counter ISIS is easy to understand: a desire to move openly against Assad frustrated by a lack of firm American support and a desire not to allow the Syrian Kurds to consolidate their early gains for fear that these would form a bordering rear-area for the Kurdish Workers Party to harbor Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. Still, following the ISIS suicide bombing in Suruc, the Turkish government have hit both ISIS and the Kurds with airstrikes and declared an intention to ally with the United States in creating safe havens for Rebel forces along the northern borders of Syria. Air support would theoretically allow rebel forces to firmly consolidate their recent gains, and for the pressure delivered on Assad’s forces in the four corners of the country to reap greater results.

The ensuing campaign will be worth monitoring as an example of how multinational coalitions sponsor and enable/abet a variety of rebel formations working towards a common goal, save of course that a common goal is not present in the rebel formations nor in their state-sponsors. The US wants ISIS degraded and destroyed in Syria so as to enable a victory over ISIS in Iraq, and the Turks want Assad defeated and the Kurdish Separatist threat removed.  The FSA itself is a pan-political organization that contains al Qaeda affiliates as well as conservative Sunni political and religious factions and secular nationalists. The US struggle finding the prodigal “moderate rebels” is well known, and the preferential treatment that these formations may receive from American air support has potentially bad implications for the unity of a coalition whose best troops are openly hostile to the West.

Alliance formation was perhaps the inevitable result of the success that Assad Regime homogeneity had over the rebel’s divided political and religious agendas, though thus far it has mostly been at the tactical level within limited areas. Operationally speaking, however, the rebels have recently coalesced their efforts into coordinated headquarters which are offering greater command and control over larger, more successful efforts. The most pronounced example of more permanent rebel consolidation has been the Jaysh al-Fatah, the Army of Conquest, a military operations headquarters in the northern rebel forces that have allied Jihadists and Salafi Conservatives to take the City of Idlib, which remains the largest concrete rebel gain of the war to date. There has even been limited coordination with the successful Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army, an alliance of over 50 minor fighting organizations, though it met stalemate at Da’ra in late June.

With the victory at Idlib and the potential for Turkish air cover, there is the potential for fresh momentum which will not allow the Assad Regime the breathing space it enjoyed to reverse and hold up Rebel gains at a time when the FSA began to splinter in 2013-2014 and the dramatic expansion of ISIS threatened the balance of rebel alliances and the promise of foreign support against Assad.

What is lacking now is a strategic framework for the control and unification of coercive violence for the pursuit of a political endgame on a larger front. The comprehensive rout of Syrian Regime forces is not apparently imminent, bolstered as they are from Hizbollah, and now with the potential of fresh cash injections from Iran. While there may be fissures, especially with the formerly pro-regime Druze population, the Assad Regime is politically and geographically solvent. It will likely be able to offset its declining manpower by consolidating its territory to defending Regime-supporting areas and indicting important corridors, and it still has some tactical and operational advantages, especially when it comes to airpower. Hence Turkish, American, British, and other NATO airpower may come to represent a decisive factor in the operational success of better-coordinated rebel forces. Yet, those same rebel forces are issuing statements of mourning for Taliban leader Mullah Omar, so that alone gives NATO pause to think about who they may be supporting and to what end. If now is the time to determine who will ultimately triumph over whom militarily, there is also urgency to figure out the political endgame in Syria.

Turkey’s more active entrance into the war is partially a calculated decision to steer events towards a strategic endgame that suits it. ISIS has been a threat to Turkey, but not nearly as much of a threat, so it is reckoned, as the more successful Kurds have been. Unilateral support the FSA proved political difficult for the Turks, and the Government has been accused of turning a blind eye to the transit of jihadist forces over the borders into Syria and Iraq in order to get a little strategic depth on both the Kurds and Assad. The American propensity for supporting Kurdish autonomy in Iraq has made Ankara consider it sound to take control to enable a Sunni Rebel victory before the Americans decide that rewarding success and punishing failure in a war against ISIS requires arming the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria so that their fighters can defeat ISIS in the upper Tigris and Northern Iraq, carving out the way for independent Kurdistan. That end would represent the set loss for the ruling Justice party under Tayyip Erdogan, and the recent death of the PKK-Turkish peace process shows the Government’s determination to maintain Neo-Ottomanism by military support for the Sunni Opposition (some argue ISIS as well until recently) at the expense of the Kurdish nationalists.

Their concerns are not unfounded. A recent article in Foreign Policy contained a frank admission by Lt. Gen. Vincent Morrow, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, that Iraq might not “come back as an intact state”. That, in fact, is probably a fair assertion about what is achievable with the means the United States is currently employing to fight ISIS, but it is a reminder that for certain policy makers “nothing is inconsistent which is expedient”. NATO may have Article 5 obligations to Turkey against attacks on it by ISIS and Kurds alike, but the US also has a war to fight with ISIS in Iraq and against al Qaeda, and, with the news that al Qaeda Syrian rebels have just massacred many leaders of the US-backed Syrian Moderate rebels, the question of aiding the northern coalition which includes it would present something of a clash of interests. If these forces then form a post-Assad governing structure, what then?

What principle do Americans seek to defend in Syria and Iraq, or is it just nakedly about interests?  The first goal of the Obama administration’s strategy is attempting to surgically fight terrorism, both by targeted low-profile operations and by bolstering allies to control territories that might germinate threats to the homeland. If, regionally-speaking, the United States has to balance the consideration of containing Iranian hegemony with the need to fight Sunni Salafist terrorism, then the Kurds seem to represent the middle ground of having a friendly power which can moderate both. Furnishing them with weapons independent of Baghdad, however, essentially casts a die in favor of at least autonomous home-rule, or at most independent statehood.  Creating nation-states to essentially hold others in check is a time-honored imperial tradition (and no doubt many view it as such) of managing territory indirectly by incentives to local proxies, or in this case “clear and hold” without building up central authority. Pursuing that course argues for devolving control of violence to where it is effective at achieving desired results, namely by giving the Peshmerga the weapons to act unilaterally against ISIS and supporting their efforts with promises of recognition and continued support.

At the same time, this is interventionism at its most insidious. Frustrations with Baghdad are understandable given the swift collapse and repeated defeats it has suffered since last summer. Criticism of the Obama Administration’s inability to get the Iraqis to agree on enduring US forces aside, it has proven extremely difficult to work with Baghdad, especially as it is bolstered by sectarian militias. The Peshmerga seem the natural choice, yet that also means formally condoning Kurdish nationalist ambitions outside the current political system. Even if done for reasons of peacemaking, it is inconsistent to arm non-state actors independent of the goals of that state, however weak it may be, while proclaiming to support an international system based on respecting the sovereignty of national law and order. Doing so, in effect, says that Baghdad has, to use the Chinese phrase, “lost the mandate” to centrally govern within the borders it has held since 1918, borders imposed upon Baghdad’s government by the  Treaty of Versailles and that mandate system.

Those like Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina who want to bypass Baghdad in order to achieve results are arguing for doing the utilitarian thing and stop wasting time and lives fighting ISIS with the restraints imposed by respecting Baghdad’s authority (even if it cannot impose law and order). Yet this has a knock on effect on what is happening in Syria, which likewise cannot be ignored. While the US opposes the PKK because of its use of indiscriminate terrorism, it must tread a fine line between that stance and the aspirations of Autonomous Kurdistan across northern Iraq and eastern Syria. While competent Kurdish forces would surround and attack ISIS in its lair, they would create a renewed security crisis for Turkey if they formed a Kurdish majority block (as some claimed they are doing by ethnic cleansing) for future consolidation in negotiations and military action. Even if Kurdistan disowned the PKK reminiscent of the Irish Republic’s disowning of the IRA, this does not answer for the question of what role an autonomous Kurdish area will play in Syrian politics in a post-Assad world.

The outcome is bound to leave nobody truly satisfied, and in creating new formations we are sowing the seeds for future conflict in the region. The immediate goal of ending this generation’s nightmarish wars may simply generate the foundation of future ones. Yet maybe, as we struggle to find a solution to the evils which have emerged from Syria’s ulcer, we must be willing to accept an imperfect solution in order to preserve what little hope may be left for settlement within our lifetime.

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What we left behind in Korea

Today marks the 62nd Anniversary of the Armistice which ended the Korean War of 1950-1953. It is often remembered as “the forgotten war” in the United States, lost somewhere between the good war of 1941-1945 and the bad war of 1964-1975. It was the first challenge of the Cold War era, an attempt to stand up a weakened state from a well coordinated attack from its northern neighbor, and it cost over 50,000 American lives, to say nothing of those of the United Nations Forces deployed, including New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Colombia, Turkey, the United Kingdom, South Africa and others.

That narrative of hegemonic responsibility is notably different than that of the deep civil conflict that the people of the Korean Peninsula feel about the war that has, since 1953, been on temporary hold across the heavily-mined DMZ.  The war divided families between two hostile and autocratic regimes (with liberalization being a latent phenomenon even in “democratic” South Korea), and led to the death, displacement, and maiming of an estimated 3 million Koreans, north and south. The perpetual military footing of the two countries, made worse by the nuclear posturing between the USA and the newly-enriched North Korean state, remains one of the world’s great crises, and one that seems no closer to being solved, given the intransigence of the North Korean state and the external influences of the United States, China, and Russia.

The country’s division is lamented locally, whether for factional propaganda or as expression of national longing between the two relatively homogeneous (at least until 1945) halves of the peninsula, divided along the 38th parallel for political expedience between two factional movements by the Soviet Union and the USA.  The Koreans now live in two militarized states, one far less than the other but both entangled in a world of barbed wire and a perpetual security trap. One has become very prosperous in comparison to the other, but it is still forced to accept a threat it can neither dispense with or remove, while peripheral powers continue to hold the ability to interfere in the political destiny of the Korean people.

In the United States, we view that as the price of the Cold War. Korea is too often forgotten in our country, but it is often spoken of as a war of necessity and fought to impasse. In Europe, as the United States and Russia fell from joint trusteeship of liberated Europe into two armed camps, Korea became the great stopping point of the east. Lenin’s vision of Asiatic Communism had always been of concern to Colonial powers in Asia, British, French, and Japanese alike. They all strove against it in varied forms, but in Korea, swallowed up as it was in a fight over the body of the defeated Japanese Empire, the twilight struggle, made all the more threatening by the now mutual possession of atomic weaponry, was made flesh and blood. Korea was a test of wills between the two world powers; US forces fought under the guise of the UN, but led from the front and in far greater numbers. Russian pilots flew sorties over North Korean airspace, and Russia delivered the T-34 tanks that ran-over the initial South Korean defense.

The crushing defeat of South Korean and American forces was dramatically reversed in the course of a bitter summer by Douglas MacArthur’s brilliant amphibious assault on Inchon. Triumph gave way to disaster as the Chinese Communist Party, denied total victory in the Chinese Civil War by the US guarantee of Jiang Jieshi’s Nationalists on Taiwan, turned the tide by invading and nearly destroying dispersed UN forces over the course of one of the largest series of campaigns (in terms of manpower) seen since the Second World War. The UN and South Korean forces were able to hang on in the face of mass numerical superiority due to the limited scope of military operations, wedged as they were on the narrow Korean peninsula, and material advantages which kept them from being driven into the sea. Thus they weathered the 1951 Spring Offensive with a massive dose of firepower, killing so many Chinese soldiers that the Chinese High Command felt exposed to a counterthrust , and pulled back to the 38th parallel to reconstitute their forces.

The war’s period of movement was over by the summer of 1951, a year after it began; within a year the war had run from the perimeter of Pusan to the Manchurian border and back again. Ground to a halt, the war then became an attritional struggle along the approximate lines of the DMZ, a struggle of entrenched forces while negotiations commenced at Panmunjom. They would not be concluded for another two years, a time which saw the struggle over strategic hills and roadways, but, luckily, not the use of atomic weapons on the battlefield or over the cities of Asia. Second_Phase_Campaign In the meantime though, there was plenty of death and suffering for populations trapped by the armies and fleeing ahead of brutal political agents on both sides. Troops too suffered a long and bitter tour along a line fraught with individual danger. American soldiers served not towards some inevitable victory, no march on the Rhine, but on long tours. Most looked forward not to peacetime, but to getting out of the heavily-conscripted Army once and for all. The “rotation blues” had Yankee soldiers counting down the days till they could escape the freezing winters, monsoon summers, and night-time probing attacks by Chinese infantry.

Meanwhile, the Armistice bogged down over the question of repatriation and borders, and the two sides struggled to dislodge each other, either by aerial attacks with napalm during the day or by well-coordinated infantry assaults under the cover of darkness. Little moved, instead men simply dug in deeper.

When eventually the Armistice was signed in late July, 1953, the external actors had mercifully backed down from hope of conclusive victory. The United States had not mobilized for all out war in Asia, instead opting for negotiations, and Russia and China too declined total war over Korea. By this point Stalin had died, Truman was out of office, and MacArthur had been relieved for his potentially dangerous autocracy. Millions were dead and, with the exception of a few shifts of the antebellum border, nothing had changed politically, neither in the leadership of the two Koreas or the posture of their forces. The sides moved on and found other battlegrounds, while the Koreans buried their dead and tried to move forward towards some future prosperity, with hope for some future reconciliation and restoration of national destiny. As yet, that future still is undefined, and possibly it shall become something else: a people irrevocably divided by language, custom, worldview, and experience as one side explores the promise of the global economy and the other the promise of inward self-strengthening as a hermetical kingdom.

Heraclitus once wrote that:

“All men are deceived by the appearances of things, even Homer himself, who was the wisest man in Greece; for he was deceived by boys catching lice, they said to him, “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.”

The Korean War’s outcome is appropriately deceiving. For Americans, what we take with us and what we leave behind is measured in both hard numbers and in ideas. The United States keeps the 8th Army in South Korea, thousands of servicemen and women who hold posts that have been guarded by American arms for over half a century. The US still holds the power of operational control over South Korea’s military in the event of Northern attack (control it continues to maintain after numerous delays of transfer of authority), and it has inundated South Korea with cultural and economic influences from soap operas to multinational conglomerates. Thousands of Korean-Americans now live in the United States and have added their own influences to the patina of our country’s rich cultural diversity.

As it was and is, Korea was left as a tense frontier for ideological struggle, a shibboleth to the failure of either side to overcome the other by conventional means. We killed the promise of turning the Cold War into a hot one, and left it there to endure in temporary abatement. Yet, what we avoided we carried forward. Guarding the no-man’s land at the DMZ is a ritual sacrifice and a communion for American foreign policy, taken as a sign that the United States fought a limited war with no prospect of total victory, and then accepted the continued consequences of a limited outcome. There was no liberation, no sweeping victory over totalitarianism, for it might have required more of American citizens, or else the annihilation of millions more in nuclear war. The DMZ is the Cold War’s word made flesh, a covenant says “Thus far, and no farther” on both sides.

What Americans took away from Korea, what they long to forget perhaps along with that war, is what TR Fehrenbach, a US Army historian and Korean War veteran, described in his book This Kind of War: A Study in Military Unpreparedness. For Fehrenbach, Korea represented a challenge to America’s ad hoc approach to foreign wars, ushering in the age of standing armies of millions prepared to hold the frontiers against regional anarchy or the external threat of Communist expansion. The “Proud Legions” that Fehrenbach predicted would be professional soldiers who were willing to hold, until the collapse of empire, the distant outposts. A classicist, Fehrenbach well predicted much of the later transition the Army would undergo after Vietnam; an end to conscription and the fostering of a large professional army dedicated to combat and fraternity away from popular understanding and populist inclusion.The Army of Iraq and Afghanistan is far more akin to this understanding than to the Conscripts and reluctant Reservists that arrived in Korea from Japan in July 1950, much as the Armies of Trajan and Hadrian were different than those who had formed Rome’s Citizen militia in the days of Hannibal.

Fehrenbach was, however, a perceptive writer who was not keen to overgeneralize about what the overall lesson of Korea might be for American foreign policy, or really for policy at all. The threat remained from the North, so there was no way to say with certainty how long (he was correct in saying it would be long, as we are still waiting) the armed camps would be postured and how long the Korean people would remain a hostage to the political intentions of two distinct political systems, united in an death grip by mutual fear and aggression. He concluded that it would be difficult to draw any great truths or lessons from the War, writing “The lesson of the Korean War is that it happened.”

Perhaps this final cryptic sentence recognizes that the Armistice signed 62 years ago today represents some kind of lucky coincidence, a fortunate outcome considering the high stakes involved after the Soviet Union tested its first atomic weapon in 1949, or perhaps it represents the lesson that ideological polities established by force of arms have limits, in this case the 38th parallel. Too many Americans didn’t care enough about Korea to sign up in droves to die there for something far short of total victory, and thus the line was drawn. Perhaps it is also a stark recognition of how the US was not able to return to peacetime functioning. As the guarantor of European and Asian regimes opposed to Soviet Communism, there would be no happy endings or prolonged disarmament after fascism fell, for, as Fehrenbach was quick to say “there are tigers in the world” which could only be forgotten at extreme peril. From thence was born a state wedded to the preservation of world order by the sword and by barbed wire.

In a sense, Korea was a test, a test of what Americans would define as the limits of peace and war. We are wise to remember this, that, in the world after Korea, “war and peace” are no longer so easy to read as the doors to the Temple of Janus. To keep half of Korea for capitalism and democracy, and to keep the world from being destroyed, America had to recognize its frontiers and be mindful of the hazards of world power.

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The War in the West; What Now?

A few months ago, I wrote of the potential challenges of a joint thrust by the Iraqi Military and supporting elements against Mosul, following on successes in January and February in halting the ISIS blitzkrieg on the north-south axis and in clearing portions of Diyala and eliminating threats to Erbil. I will admit the events of the past week may have just thrown many observers for a loop, including me. Late as last week, I was reading that ISIS was on the backfoot, its leader wounded, its Syrian and Iraqi theater commanders fighting among themselves, and it seemed that the expected push northwards, which included clearing Tikrit on the northern approach to Baghdad, to Nineveh province and Mosul would follow.

Now instead, a vicious counterattack in the West of Iraq, in Anbar province, has overrun the major city of Ramadi and threatened to cut off Iraqi forces defending and clearing Haditha and al Assad airbase, where US forces are currently operating. Videos showed the 8th Brigade’s Anbar Operational Command in speedy retreat. Ramadi was the initial scene of the Anbar Awakening, in which Sunni tribes disaffected with al Qaeda in Iraq (one of ISIS’ forerunners) were aided and abetted by the Americans to form self defense forces to drive out al Qaeda and affiliated insurgent groups. ISIS has, according to reports, been taking revenge, looking for collaborators and anti-ISIS communal leaders who asked for American and Shiite militia’s assistance.

ISIS has, in the face of its local and global opponents, pursued peripheral consolidation strategies. Though pressed in the north and rebuffed by fierce Kurdish resistance in Syria, ISIS has been able to make use of sporadic attacks outside of the main line of operations to destabilize its already unstable opponents, hitting them most anywhere they can while exposing their main avenues to as little risk as possible. It’s very easy to spread chaos with weaponized individuals and a good narrative and messaging strategy via social media; ISIS’ boogeyman has been everywhere, from Afghanistan to Texas, and no one can tell what exactly is going on. Are there the required networks, sleeper cells, and infrastructure which constitute already-embedded threats which could explode, or are these just tactical strikes to unnerve their opponents and win greater propaganda victories? With the semi-detached bayat system, which is an informal but relatively headless management style in which groups or individuals anywhere can pledge loyalty to al Baghdadi as Caliph, ISIS’ word of mouth presence seems to show them on the march everywhere, and such a system is great for exporting disruptive violence and garnering legitimacy to trade for cash, guns, and lives for the main ISIS effort to consolidate territory in al Sham.

Terrain Control in Iraq from ISW

Terrain Control in Iraq from ISW

Locally as well, ISIS has been not-so-quietly mopping up in Anbar. In November 2014, ISIS retreated from Western Ramadi in order to consolidate areas around the city of Hit and then, in a lightning campaign, countering an Iraqi Army thrust at Fallujah, which it had held since January. Led by the Chechen Abu Umar al Shishani, the counterattack was successful at throwing the Iraqi Security Forces off balance in Anbar. ISIS then continued spoiling attacks and expanded its supply lines up the Tigris River into eastern Syria, building on the void left by the withdrawal of Syrian Regime forces to counter renewed Rebel pressure in western Syria to consolidate. Though halted on the southern avenue from Mosul to Baghdad, ISIS has been able to do exactly what was feared from a too-passive strategy: outlast its coalition of opponents as they hinder each other’s efforts to destroy it, and then proving resilient and adaptive in the face of uncoordinated attacks upon it.

Wars are a nasty, long, and political business; the forces facing ISIS are sectarian and multilateral, and thus are chafing the longer they have to stand next to each other. The major external actors, the United States and Australasian/European Partners (busily trying to do the most damage with commitment), the Arab League (busy battling Houthis in Yemen), and Iran (busily supporting the Syrian Regime, Hezbollah, and the Shi’a militias which constitute the Popular Mobilization front) all are staring down the barrels at each other over Yemen while simultaneously trying to deescalate the nuclear ladder. Outreach and common interests are no doubt being discussed, but covert action can only yield so many results when open avenues to structure power arrangements do not exist and regional power competition remains poised to rupture any arrangements.

Within the country, the Popular Mobilization of Shi’a militias and the United States airstrikes have not been able to work concurrently, while the Abadi government, still in rough seas, refuses to conscious an American plan to directly arm the Kurds and Sunni groups. After all, much of the germination of Anbar’s fall had to do with Sunni tribal forces and communities who fear the power of Shi’a factionalism as well as Salafist extremism. An Army of fanatical Shi’a who openly answer to Muqtada al Sadr, the Sh’ia cleric whose political faction holds great sway in Iraq’s parliament, may seem to many Anbaris like a pill for a disease, but one that is just as likely to be fatal.  The movement of Popular Mobilization units to Anbar was so controversial (and sparked a few bad incidents) that the units withdrew, theoretically as a gesture of goodwill. The sectarianism and supposed unreliability of these forces, as they failed to fully clear Tikrit in March, led the United States to continue to press against them by denying supporting air cover. American interests are now under stress as maintaining a national state-based monopoly on military power, one that is not so explicitly threaded with paramilitary members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, is looking increasingly unfeasible.

At the same time, withdrawing air support to militia units, and the news that Congress was considering treating the Kurds and anti-ISIS Sunnis as nations so as to bypass Baghdad’s prerogative and sole authority to arm sectarian forces, caused the Shi’a, who are the majority in Baghdad’s national government, to refuse to support joint operations. Meanwhile, Kurdish and Sunni forces complained that Baghdad was not forwarding them the weapons or supplies needed to keep ISIS at bay. In Anbar, pleas have even gone out to the Popular Mobilization from Sunni elements directly, who fear they are in-between the devil and the deep blue sea. As the ISIS tide has risen again, such Baghdad-aligned Sunni forces may form a role similar to their tribal counterparts in eastern Syria who fight ISIS with the backing of the Shi’a dominated Assad Regime, but Baghdad is, understandably, wary of creating yet another extra-judicial fighting force it cannot control. In Anbar, tensions are still holding over from 2003-2004, when insurgent Sadaam-supporting Ba’athists (many of whom are now in ISIS) first emerged and partnered with al Qaeda, and mutual distrust undermines the competence of the forces opposing ISIS. Without the militias to extend their reach, or at least hold territory to contest ISIS’ movements, the Iraqi Army has been very quickly surrounded and forced to withdraw to a few strong points.

ISIS has managed to exploit the aforementioned frictions by letting the course of international events drive the external powers to crisis while it wages an effective propaganda war by claiming command and control (though to what extent, it is unclear) over acts of terrorist violence internationally, which further destabilizes the coalition of the unwilling. In Iraq itself, it continues to, by its very existence and ability to spread chaos, present a hard target which splits its enemies as much as it unites them. Proxy tensions between Iran and the United States too has a toll on unified efforts; many Shi’a believe the United States lets ISIS continue to grow to attack Iran, a message encouraged by popular media, while Sunnis are unsure that Kurdish and Shi’a forces are not just fronts for Iranian Qods Force operatives to continue to support Hezbollah and the Syrian Regime by implanting fresh logistics and ethnic corridors through their areas.

So the question becomes thus: What is now to be done? Ramadi, a city cleared and held repeatedly throughout the Iraq War at great cost to American and Iraqi life, is now in the hands of ISIS. It is only 70 miles away from Baghdad, and the fear of ISIS penetration into the surrounding communities in the belts (a major site of bombmaking activities and insurgent infrastructure from 2003-2007) may compel a shift in American strategy, but to what? In Congress, the debate fluctuates over the arming provisions in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act passed in the House of Representatives which bypass Baghdad, but also about whether it will then be time to deploy American ground troops for combat operations. Few are enthused with the latter idea. Yet, even as they talk of countering Sectarianism by refusing to support Iranian-backed militias, some in Congress are insisting the United States needs to arm Kurdish and Sunni ones (see the Militia Conundrum).

Meanwhile, the DOD has made one of the world’s poorest-timed assertions that things are improving, even as Ramadi has fallen. In this case, ISIS’s military council is simply compensating by going on the offense, which some view as the best defense. Tactically it is unclear if the sudden ISIS thrust could just as soon by parried and returned by renewed assaults, but doing so will require the militia’s assistance. There has been tacit admission that giving air and fires support to the Popular Mobilization militias is now strategically palatable, as long as it is to the Administration’s satisfaction that they are controlled by the government of Iraq.

The Institute for the Study of War has recommended that it is time for external intervention against ISIS, but gloomily noted that it couldn’t think of a regional power that could do so without alienating at least one major ethnic or religious group in country, or coming in with a list of strings attached, especially due to the tensions over Yemen. In reality, what is likely needed now is an open agreement for ground-forces intervention among Iran, the United States, Turkey, Arab powers, etc, but that is extremely unlikely because the hands of the country’s leaders to negotiate are tied by domestic resistance, especially in the United States and in Iran. Points of agreement to preserve the status quo are possible, and arguably it must be presented that way to succeed, but there are many adjudicating factors about what agreements can be accepted, and, crucially, whose forces will go where and occupy what. Likewise, a hard and fast system for withdrawal of forces will be politically vital, though realistically untenable, for such a multilateral intervention to succeed.

All this, unfortunately, gives ISIS time to consolidate along the Tigris, forming two potential cordons for attack on Baghdad from north and south (dividing Baghdad’s defensive resources between them). With the Assad Regime falling back in Syria and the Syrian Opposition pushing towards Damascus, ISIS’s Syrian holdings and Iraqi rear area may grow more secure. While this also forces ISIS into the position of having to control and possible reinforce multiple fronts as the Syrian Kurds and rival Islamists still remain a threat (“He who defends everything defends nothing” as Frederick the Great observed), consolidating Anbar, a majority Sunni region, would give ISIS a strong position which it could use to bleed Iraqi Security Forces and Shi’a militias, whose control and tendency to commit extra-judicial killings will further alienate ISIS’ Sunni populations and add to their propaganda arsenal.

Yet, given their still relatively modest capabilities and failure to demonstrate superior competency in combined arms manuever, the Iraqi Security Forces need to be able to hold ground and then counterattack to relieve surrounded positions if they are cut off. Certainly American airstrikes can help and interdict ISIS attacks, but the critical mass, historically at least, needs to be provided by infantry, likely provided by militias, and especially where bombing is not feasible due to civilian casualties. It would be good if those were local Sunni militias, but that option again reinforces Baghdad’s fears about building sectarian forces outside its control, while the Popular Mobilization is at hand and seemingly willing to back up Baghdad.

What is worse is that the more time is lost to ironing this out strategically, tactically things could get very hairy indeed. ISIS has proven in Ramadi that it is perfectly capable of making tactical withdrawals, hitting the enemies’ center of gravity sporadically, and then counterattacking viciously, a resilient enemy if ever there was one. Clearing them out of Anbar will be a task of attrition (read: many will die) and a struggle over time. Familiarity is said to breed contempt, and the long process of occupying and pacifying Anbar could come with its own challenges to Iraqi Security Forces in restraining troops, guarding against further suicide attacks, and winning hearts and minds (something they have not succeeded in in the past). American support and target-attack sorties, an expensive way of fighting without further commitment, will likely continue in order to do something to keep Iraq alive and not totally engaged to Iran. Hitting ISIS can occasionally turn great results and keeps the scale of attacks to theoretically manageable levels, but the ease with which sporadic airpower can be countered (including with sandstorms) proffers that this strategy will yield little quickly and may be declining into inefficacy, save for “we’re doing something” propaganda value (which, in this political climate, is not working for the Obama Administration).

Meanwhile, fighting still continues on the northern approaches to Baghdad, and ISIS also now controls a significant portion of the strategic Baiji  Oil Refinery. The disposition of Iraqi Forces along the northern and western fronts will need to counter any further push, but also keep ISIS off balance by itself making effective offensives. While theoretically in a strong defensive position vis a vis Baghdad, ISIS’ maneuverable tactical advantage in infiltration and suicide attacks can easily weaken the interior lines the Iraqi Security Forces enjoy, and the performance of troops at Ramadi, like at Mosul last year, provides little additional confidence. While Shi’a militias are currently massing northeast of Fallujah to counterattack, it remains to be seen if these forces can effectively counter ISIS without pushing the remaining 40% of Anbar outside ISIS control into Daesh grasp.

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Victory in Europe

VE Day in London

VE Day in London

May 8th will mark the 70th Anniversary of the German Surrender to Allied Forces, VE Day, with the Russians celebrating a day later. The Kremlin’s victory celebration has regained a decidedly ominous timbre with the renewed tensions between Russia and Western Europe, marking another anniversary: the rough 70th anniversary of the origin of the Cold War.

The initial drawing of the Iron Curtain has no fixed date; sometimes it is dated to tensions over German federation issue in 1946, sometimes to the Berlin crisis of 1948, or the first successful test of a Soviet atomic weapon in 1949. Precise concerns over the nature of the peace won by May 8th, 1945 were, publicly at least, temporarily in suspension as both Russia and the Western Allies turned their attention to the final defeat of Japan, which would come after the first use of atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Still, the tensions, treated at conferences in Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam, were there, and history proved the pieces were shifting into new, limited wars of containing Communism. To this day many Americans define what was, in truth, the transition from a hot war into a cold one as a quiet “peacetime”, which lasted until the outbreak of hostilities in Korea in 1950, even though violence rocked the world from Ukraine to China, limited though US engagement was. Yet, the big war was over and neatly tied up.

In the United States, World War II as a historical memory in the American mainstream is entering into new waters on after a long period of unquestioned fixation as “the good war”. This vision of the war always had cracks in moral and social history: the first and offensive use of the atomic bomb worried moralists from the minute of its use to this day. There was also the issue of Japanese-American internment, which became an extremely uncomfortable subject in the light of similar camps used by our totalitarian enemies. There was also racial segregation in the ranks, even down to the blood used for transfusions by Army doctors, and the horrendous racial unrest unleashed in the Zoot Suit Riots. Yet all of that was buried in the familiar terms: Rosie the Riveter, “The Greatest Generation”, “Righteous Might”, and “Absolute Victory”, and in the image of the Sailor Kissing the Nurse on VJ Day (which itself turned out to be not as nice on second reflection).

The war’s unimpeachable reputation, in the main, rested on the sacrifice it demanded of the world’s population as a whole: directly or indirectly through combat fatality, starvation, extermination, and pestilence, the war killed somewhere between 50 and 80 million people. In the United States, the number is somewhere near 420,000 casualties, America mostly was spared the large scale attacks on civilian centers which was a deliberate strategy in its own war of attrition against Japan and Germany. 420,000 combat losses would be the lion’s share of the current United States Army, and represents the second largest bloodletting after the American Civil War. 420,000 men in four years represented some .32% of the population in total.

The Good War

The Good War

Such fatalities were the result of a war with ambitious aims: the decisive defeat and dismantling of three nations-in-arms. Military scholars came to see the mass mobilization of American resources and manpower for the cause of completely overthrowing an opponent and totally demolishing a foreign threat to be a central tenant of a distinctly American Way of War, which otherwise shunned large armies and extensive foreign commitments in peacetime. When Americans after the First World War sang George M. Cohan’s song Over There! they could take the cue provided in the final line:

“And we won’t come back, till it’s over over there!”

This was an approach where American ingenuity and spirit of righteous might overcame our lack of perpetual Spartan regimentation and centralized control of the means of production for the purpose of war-making. That spirit to arise to the era’s great challenge to western democracy, “the biggest thing that man has ever done” as Woody Guthrie put it, is still held as an expression of American culture at its purest and best(much like the British “Spirit of the Blitz”) , with the mass mobilization of persons of all stripes and colors as individual tools of our collective will to preserve liberty and democracy abroad.

Yet this anniversary is beginning to sound off a little differently. For one, the Greatest Generation is increasingly passing away from us. The reverence Americans generally have for them is undiminished, but now, with the narrative more free to posterity, there is a greater awareness of the real ugliness of “the good war”, reflected in the differences between the moral ambiguities and acts of dirt-encrusted savagery present in recent film and television depictions like Fury and The Pacific and the old rough and tumble, but ultimately morally-grounded, characters of The Longest Day and Sands of Iwo Jima. The chaos of the European war’s final days, the setting of Fury, is one more familiar to a modern American audience from the news of today: here are child insurgents with rocket launchers, sudden ambushes from ragged enemies, long lines of refugees, and soldiers in an army of occupation facing dire circumstances in a war they are seemingly winning, but are also unprepared for at the same time. This is the ragged end of unlimited war; conquest through slow, bitter attrition.

The Bad War

The Bad War

And perhaps too, that is why the world depicted in Fury is more real to our eyes now then the cheerful “Best Days of Our Lives” films of yesteryear, because it seemingly has no end. VE Day did not send all of America’s troops back home, and our forces, while not to be deemed “forces of occupation” as then, remain in Germany, Japan, and Italy. Peacetime was something of an illusion, save that after 1945 American never again turned its entire weight to the enterprise of war. Our closing engagements in 1945 quickly became the twilight struggle of the Cold War, a period in which the threat of conflict across the globe between two hegemonic blocks was tempered by the fear that their weapons might end life as we knew it. The art of politics became the art of deferring the apocalypse for another day while maintaining both a balance of influences in the border regions and domestic tranquility by relying on biased selective service system, keeping factories making cars and consumable media, and making sure oil and food were cheap, desirable, and plentiful.

Even when the Soviet threat abated in 1992, the interest in maintaining the global commons and markets which bolstered America’s global economy kept the United States engaged across the world, spending more and finding more wicked local problems than could be adequately addressed without unbalancing the unique economic circumstances that maintained our freedom of intervene without having to, again, call up the entirety of a generation or introduce additional taxes.

Offsetting the costs of our grand strategy is hard in a time when the government rancor against overspending is so knee-jerk. No one wants to spend more on defense if it would mean having to burden the public debt more than it has already, but the calls to arms across our supposedly global sphere of influence are now confronting America with two choices: retrenchment or retreat. There may be other ways, and the military has been experimenting with offset concepts, but the vision offered us by political bodies has increasingly become fogged between “nationbuilding here at home” and exceptionalism by the sword. Somewhere in between, the expensive and exhausting art of deterrence seems to present no answer to public exasperation, especially as old problems in Europe are re-emerging, the Middle East’s remain constant, and East Asia’s are blossoming.

VE Day’s 70th anniversary, coming one year before the next presidential election, is the first anniversary since the War that has seen the serious political resurrection of the isolationists, the old conservative foreign policy logic of George Washington when he advised against foreign commitments. While the 1990s did see a personnel and budget reduction from the Reagan-era military spending boost, there was still an active interest, carried through to now, in the use of American forces for the purpose of defending (and spreading) democracy and humanitarian interests abroad.

What we are seeing now is the return of conservatism in its ancient sense, the cynical calculations of realist philosophy which preach a disinterest in other state’s affairs and any role in international arbitration save to challenge a direct threat to American citizens. The middle-of-the-road “don’t do stupid shit” approach still has too many price tags, both fiscally and morally, for fringe movements on both sides of the aisle, and it is also a nexus for criticism because it seems to have no narrative or ideological structure which suits either Wilson or Henry Cabot Lodge.

The re-emergence of the conservative realist element of American foreign policy was made inevitable by American experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now is being championed as a means to fiscal improvement post-recession. This course, championed by Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders, argues for the massive draw-down of America’s security apparatus to pre-World War II levels in order to both force the military to match modest foreign policy aims and channel that money to domestic good, by private or public means. The forces left will be enough to defend vital interests, but not to be so large as to encourage the late style of unilateral interventionism, the “chickenhawk nation” syndrome described by James Fallows.

Those who insist our forward posture is essential for the America’s continued security now contend with a nation which distrusts the world’s chaos and seeks balm for our own. While the foreign policy conservatives are perhaps viewed as radicals in their parties, their message is not without an audience among voters who feel that other nation’s problems are inherently not ours to solve. This, perhaps, is truer to the American Way of War as it used to be understood, a natural isolationism bolstered by docile neighbors and two wide oceans. So too is a weariness and skepticism about trigger-happy politicians and the intentions of the people we are supposed to be helping, neither one of which is particularly new either. As far back as the Korean War, American soldiers sang:

“Congress sent a tour around/And they loaded up with Scotch/

While they were really living/we had 40’s up the crotch

They cried “Let’s Kill the Bastards!/Let’s Drive Em to their knees/

But there weren’t Congressmen/In the list of Casualties”

And recent, well observed, criticisms of the Iraqi government’s rampant corruption and parochialism, reminiscent of South Vietnam’s, have turned many Americans against the idea that other nations can really be helped by American forces and money, and whether they deserve any resources at all.

Yet, in such an interconnected world and global economy, the world America had no small part in building and financing because of the events of 70 years ago, is such a return possible? Have we not to recognize and to own the world we have built? Can what we have built up to prevent nuclear encirclement and social-economic isolation, and are now maintaining at a high cost, be secure or regained if we were to let it go? In a world where America’s security borders have expanded and intruded into other countries to maintain the security of our imports and transit, could the average American still enjoy the same fruits of hegemony without the expensive sword of Damocles we are grasping?

For the better part of a century, American influence and intervention has propped up Israel, enabled the globalized economy, defended oil access for our economy, allowed Western Europe to maintain liberal social democracy in the face of the Red Army, suppressed revolutions and deposed governments, set up and supported international arbitrating bodies, fought brutal limited wars to preserve Asian “democracies”, and sponsored violent proxy wars. Morally hazardous might making morally hazardous right. When you put it like that, no wonder there is conservative skepticism about whether any of that was right, or was worth the cost.

The problem with breaking the tools to sustain credible threats to deter big wars and credible forces to win small ones is that it proves more expensive in flesh and money to build them up again, especially when we face better organized threats, in a short time. Ancient logic suggests that it is hard to relinquish military might; the Athenians have, in my mind, eternally told the Melians: “The Strong do as they will, and the weak suffer what they must“, and the ancient paradox of Vegetius “If you want peace, prepare for war” remains true. While we may, with nuclear weapons, be never again so weak as before 1945, this still does not mean we will be without requirement to fight wars which cannot be won with cruise missiles, or at least not without a rankled conscious and international outcry.

For all the rhetoric about restoring a conservative foreign policy of isolationism and non-interventionism, the United States has not ever been quite content to leave the world’s affairs to the world. In his book The Savage Wars of PeaceMax Boot demonstrated that American interests, if not so explicitly as after 1945, have always been advanced by the sword, from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, and the political and economic “status quo” secured by American forces. The blatant anti-democratic political interventions across the Caribbean and the Philippines the USA made prior to 1945 were at least done quietly, but then again so were the 674 military missions US forces performed in Africa last year (besides the Ebola response). Marine Corps General Smedley Butler, an ardent anti-interventionist, concluded in 1932 that “War is a racket…I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle- man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.”

This anniversary ought make us recall, likewise, what war’s costs can be when early escalation goes unchecked. Foreign policy conservatives now agree with old sentiments against further intervention in any “quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.” Except those were the words of Neville Chamberlain during the Czechoslovakia Crisis, and, by abandoning bold action and with an outmoded military system, the Allies were unable to stop Western Europe from being the burial ground for many American and Allied soldiers who reclaimed it from fascism, hedge by hedge and town by town, to say nothing of millions of Soviet soldiers and partisans who perished holding down German forces on the Eastern Front.

70 years ago, America had millions of men in uniform and an economy, media, and social system which was almost totally geared for war. Americans ate rationed meals, had limitations on their gas allowances, and went to work in factories or were drafted. This was quite a different world, and the impact and costs of war were far higher to the average American. Since then, America has ended the draft, grown an obesity problem, and become gas-guzzlers of epic proportions. Much of what conservative rhetoric seeks is a restoration of our past isolationism and past habits, which in too many cases means stricter religious social observances without having to actually give up western diets and our dependence on global resources which fuel our style of living. Most Americans of military age could not meet the fitness standards of 1939, let alone 2015.

While perhaps it is true that surrendering our social and economic liberties to gain security means we deserve neither, we’ve also been very lucky as a country to have been, in our short existence, protected by oceans and by a dearth of power projecting rivals. If being practical demands realizing that it may be impossible to adequately nation-build without forces deemed too costly, a similar realization may also be that America has often paid for military and security unpreparedness in blood and treasure. If we did accept more modest foreign aims, however, we would also realize that our interests now, because of how far we have marched in the past, from the Rhine to the Yalu, are very far flung. Abandoning security of these interest would, undoubtedly, expose the vulnerability of the social and economic security most Americans enjoy.

Remembering the ugliness of the past is as important as recognizing its beauties, lest we think it is easy to get something for nothing. To wish to return to the paradigm we occupied before 1945 is enticing, but will come with costs many Americans would not willingly pay. Instead, let us seek a new paradigm: a use of force with balances the considerations of intervention and public sacrifice honestly. Too much is at stake, and we must remember the 420,000 Americans who remain forever the youngest of that Greatest Generation, to continue to view strategy and our role in the world as a zero-sum game for the benefit of domestic politics.

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Silence to Remember Silence

In Israel today, sirens rang out across the country which brought traffic to a standstill and led to a moment of national silence. The silence is a commemoration of a day of remembrance for the Holocaust, the Shoah, a state-mandated genocide against Jewish people, identified as race and identity, as well as religion.

There is no need, not when so many others have articulated it better, to discuss the horror of deliberate genocide, nor the prolonged antisemitism that led to the attempted extermination of the Jews and persists today. The National Socialist fascination with racial hygiene as part of the identification and deliberate separation of the pure German volk and Lebensunwertes Leben, life unworthy of life, and the appeal and actual impact that had on the men who pulled the triggers and the switches (and the majority of killing was done by shooting, not in the gas chambers) has also been well covered by Goldhagen, Browning, and others.

The journey into that darkness is debated, as is who’s hand steered the vessel into that evil, and to whom the blame should be assigned. Debates rage about what the role of the liberators was and what it was not, and debates, without surcease, continue about the political and spiritual implications of such an event as it relates to Israel.

What I remember today is not the debate, the rallies, the propaganda, the loud cries that continue today. What I am thinking of instead is the verge of darkness, the point at which people said nothing, but allowed themselves to do things without ever having been told to. The subconscious tipping point where we allow ourselves to look at another being and quietly deny them. I am thinking of a passage in Jay Lifton’s book The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocidewhich is a stunning work unto itself, about Aktion T4.

Aktion T4 was a secretive directive to a select board of ideologically motivated National Socialist medical professionals to deliberately exterminate persons with severe neurological and physical handicaps and the mentally unwell, and also targeted the inmates of asylums who had histories of addiction, depression, and other social neuroses it was feared might be passed on genetically. At first it was targeted sterilization of mixed race children (which would continue into the Concentration Camps), and then the beginning of euthanasia programs against the mentally handicapped. The idea of racial hygiene in the medical profession itself had seen edicts and portions of the Nuremberg Laws dedicated to blacklisting and forcing out Jewish doctors, too often aided by their former colleagues who saw the laws as an opportunity to eliminate competition and rise in clinics and hospitals. Throughout the profession, with a few rare exceptions, a tacit understanding kept any backlash from materializing.

Aktion T4’s first targets were children with Down Syndrome, Micro or Hydrocephalus, Cerebral Palsy, and other physical deformations. Hitler was a key advocate of the program, and commissioned The Reich Committee for the Scientific Registering of Serious Hereditary and Congenital Illnesses, a small body which reviewed every case and passed judgement as to whether a patient would be euthanised, on the advice of his personal physician, Dr. Karl Brandt. Every case was weighed on the medical testimony of attending physicians through the lens of a certain criteria, while Jewish patients were immediately marked for death regardless of condition. Those killed were recorded as having died from various and sundry causes, and the impeccably kept records deliberately falsified.

Justification had come with the start of the attack on Poland. After all, hospital facilities and medical expertise ought to go to sustaining and propagating the healthy and those fighting for the future of the healthy, not mouths incapable or unwilling to work. The popular acceptance of explicit euthanasia, despite ideological efforts from the Party, was never very high, but acute resistance to the message, especially as the medical profession’s role as racial hygienists had been sanctified as part of the program of national self improvement, was never universal across the whole of Germany either, which allowed the semi-secretive Aktion T4 to proceed.

After initial actions, the program expanded to adults. While it was used to clear psychiatric hospitals in the Reich of persons who were disabled or it was feared would pass on genetic predispositions to a variety of negative traits and behaviors, the program also became a way to eliminate dissenters quietly by sticking them in mental asylums for various concocted reasons. The children were mostly killed in special wards, usually by a slow and increasing dose of sedative, administered to the point of fatal overdose. It was the adult victims who were the first to be extensively killed using specially-built carbon monoxide chambers in the guise of showers, a system observed with interest by the Einsatzgruppen, the special SS task forces tasked with liquidating Jewish populations in the areas behind the advance of the German Army.

Estimates range from 26,000 to 100,000 persons involuntarily euthanised; a number which acknowledges both those killed in Aktion T4 (which had to be put on hiatus in 1941 due to strong public reactions, especially in Catholic-majority Bavaria, to the rumors that the killings were occurring) as well as those killed in later informal clearances, mental patients killed by einsatzgruppen commandos in areas overrun by the Wehrmacht, and mental patients taken from labor and concentration camps to special facilities for observation, experimentation, and liquidation.

The killing was horrible, if not alien to the perverted course of Darwinism that the Nazis pursued in developing ein volk, ein reich which drew sources from scientific thought espoused in medical societies for the study of eugenics, especially in the United States. The thing that, to me, is absolutely staggering was the careful medical process of concocting explanations for relatives and the precise, if falsified, medical notation of all proceedings. This unseemly work, backed up by explicit threats from the gestapo to people who asked too many questions, was carried out by doctors, by people who had taken the Hippocratic Oath, by nurses, and by people who lived in the same communities as the families whose relatives they were deliberately killing. Perhaps some movements of conscious saved one or two lives, but the burden of proof before the Reich Committee was on local medical authorities to explain why patients should not be euthanized, and the system reinforced complicity for fear of blackballing or worse.

Yet even that is not so monstrous as the passage in which Lifton records the memories of the assistants administering the sedatives which slowly aped the appearance of declining health in children only a few years old. Relatives grew suspicious if healthy children suddenly perished overnight (one of the reasons the gassing aroused suspicion), so often the process was drawn out for days, even weeks. The special wards for children were a place of silence, a silence in which those killing never or almost never acknowledged to each other what they were doing. A few had to be told directly by Reich Committee representatives, but many simply followed those diffused orders without saying anything; young nurses who never had to be told explicitly about the aim of upping the dosage, even though they knew it was slowly killing the children. Maybe in some cases a mental extirpation was possible, a detachment to preserve sanity or to justify the transgression, but the fact remains that the action rarely had to be vocalized or the object made apparent by more than a look or by discursive references. Self-censorship, if the perpetrators are to be believed, was the norm.

There is a certain kind of collective shrug, a “c’est le guerre“, about many of life’s inconsistencies and even its outright cruelties. Certain things are perhaps merely inevitabilities, but one should never forget that all inevitability is made truly inevitable by its acceptance, and then by tacit process. Self-delusion is undeniably an important part of human survival, especially in a world where life consumes other life nearly everyday, but there is a danger in this. Persons suffering from intense handicaps indeed too often get swallowed up in our society, too often viewed as liabilities. The poor national conversation about mental health often relegates mental illness and handicaps to the fringe. It is exactly this fact that these people seem helpless that makes it perhaps easy to turn away from them.

Yet it was Aktion T4, that ability to look at the mentally unwell, deny them personhood, and then to deliberately and surreptitiously kill them that was the slippery slope to the decision, not in any final form as Germany inherited large Jewish populations through military conquest in the East and West, to eliminate Jews by deliberate and medically-supervised extermination. The concentration of Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, and other targeted groups and minorities mirrored the liquidation of separate institutions to fewer, better managed facilities with the purpose of efficiently identifying and killing those judged unworthy of life. The gassing process was refined on the mentally handicapped before it was used at Treblinka, with that becoming the model for the extermination facilities at concentration camps. What began with the voiceless turned on millions who were shot, gassed, and starved between 1939 and 1945.

What we need to remember is that today’s silence began with silence. It begins with someone looking at you, a look which, without words, asks, “Are you going to question this order? this state of affairs?” There are times in life when we cannot say no or we feel we cannot, and Fascism and all totalitarianism feeds on this by substituting for conscious a simple parochial and cynical truism about nature’s course and intention, with utter self-abatement necessary so the strong may eat. As Kipling says in the Law of the Jungle “…the head and the hoof of the law and the haunch and the hump is—Obey!”

Yet, we as people, as human beings, have the power of reasoning and examination, if we have to courage to look into the darkness and see it, to say “we cannot do this” or “I cannot allow this to happen.” We have the ability to say, as Jesus said in the Book of Matthew, that what you do unto the weakest of us you do unto all of us. We can take responsibility for what happens and risk ourselves for something better, even when it seems that all is against our doubt.

That is courage. That is the noise that breaks the silence: the Anacrusis between the abstract thought and the committing syllable, or in music the commencing notes before the first beat. Anacrusis derives from the Greek Anakrousis, which means to strike upwards or to push back. Let that be the challenge of today, for everyone, Jew or Gentile alike. When we are presented with some horrendous situation and the wily parochial response cries “It is the war- Obey!”, push back. Break the silence and perhaps you may create the wave that shatters collective tyranny over mind and body. That will be a fitting way to remember the millions gone into that darkness and serve the millions who live in it today.

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