The Unbiased Eye

A scientist's commentary on events and culture

Power Rangers Who Kill for Peace

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A few nights ago, I saw the movie All Quiet on the Western Front. It’s an absorbing and horrifying film about trench warfare in World War I. It makes vivid the experience of living and fighting and usually dying in the mud holes. The movie makes it clear that most of the infantry didn’t last long on the front lines.

Everybody was hungry. The soldiers were fed when they were sent to rest in the rear. The civilians were just hungry all the time. In the middle of the movie, a small group of Germans whose stories are being told come across a handful of French girls across a river. They buy a night of sex with their rations. The girls eyes burn when they are shown a loaf of bread and some sausage from across the river. An unspoken bargain is struck.

The movie, made in America in 1930, is still a powerful pacifist statement. It pounds home the point that the ideals with which the war started didn’t mean a thing to the men after a few days days surrounded by death. The hero, who does nothing heroic but die, explains this to a new crop of boys being exhorted to defend the fatherland by their high school teachers: “We just try to stay alive.”

The horror of World War I is far worse when you read some history. At the end, more than 9 million people were killed. The war started on June 28, 1914, when a young Bosnian-Serb, a nationalist who only wanted freedom for his people from the oppression of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, assassinated the heir to the throne in Sarajevo, Bosnia.

Within a month, the Austrians sought to teach the Serbs a lesson, and the rest of Europe’s diplomats went into high gear, invoking interlocking mutual defence treaties. Britain, France and Russia were lined up against Germany, Austria and the Turks. It was truly a world war because these were all empires with colonies scattered throughout Asia and Africa.

All Quiet on the Western Front opens with a fiery-eyed schoolmaster delivering a patriotic speech to a classroom of scrubbed schoolboys. Only one of them hesitates, but he too goes off to enlist in defence of his country. One of the many horrors of World War I was that the groups of young men from towns, villages and neighborhoods who enlisted together, stayed together in the trenches and died together. In many places, the phrase “the lost generation” just meant that there were no longer any men in their 20s.

The ideals voiced on the British and French side of the lineup, at the end including the Americans, were even grander. It was “the war to end all wars”. Of course, it led directly to the far deadlier World War II in which nearly 80 million people, including massive numbers of civilians were killed.

I’ve been depressed by Obama’s rush into Libya. There’s been a lot of idealistic talk since January, but in Libya’s case, it never made sense. I’ve written about it before. We are taking sides without knowing who we’re fighting for. The rebels at best look like opportunists seizing the moment opened by Egypt and Tunisia to pull off a coup and install one of themselves as headman and dictator, skimming off their take of the oil money. There are strong suggestions of fundamentalism among the rebels.

NBC News’s John Engel told Rachel Maddow two weeks ago that the Libyan rebels “don’t share our ideals.” He said many of the rebels hold “weird conspiracy theories — about 1 in 5 think Qaddafi is Jewish.”

One of the scarier facts is the possible CIA ties of a defector, Colonel Khalifa Hifter, who has surfaced as a leader of the rebels.

Then I listened to the president’s talk last week, when he sounded like all the rest, hailing the men and women in uniform, giving us a televised schoolmaster’s talk reviewing all of the evil that Qaddafi is (which didn’t stop the Europeans from making oil deals with him). Here are some of his catchphrases:

If we waited one more day, Benghazi would have suffered a massacre and stained the conscience of the world.
Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocity.
All those yearning for freedom around the world

I first came across speculation that the White House debate on Libya was pitting militant humanitarians against a more cautious diplomatic group in Time’s online Swampland blog. The humanitarians, idealists, were ashamed that the United States doesn’t intervene more often; the diplomats, and apparently the military, thought a move on Libya was risky with little chance of success.

The humanitarian faction includes Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, United Nations ambassador Susan Rice and presidential adviser Samantha Power. The latter is a journalist and academic who worked on Obama’s campaign in 2008, until she was forced to quit after calling Hillary Clinton “a monster”. Ms. Power has studied and written about genocidal warfare for two decades in places like Bosnia, and Rwanda, and has urged that action is necessary if only to establish the American will to intervene in the future. She has made a career out of genocide. In one speech, she argued that America must “be willing to put something on the line.”

If you read about Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s, you can well understand her passion. But when you listen to her — speeches and interviews on Youtube at various times — you get the flavor of much more than sympathy. She is on a mission, a true believer in the morality of her cause, fervent in her belief that you must put something on the line she has drawn. There is no room for doubt or hesitation. No ambiguity or extenuating circumstance can be allowed to interfere with the mission.

But we do not live a world of superheroes who can magically right wrongs. The reality is that some wrongs move too fast. Obama referred to the fact that it took a year for the United Nations to enter the Bosnian civil war and stop ethnic cleansing. Obama congratulated the U.S. and Europe for getting its act together so much faster — a mere 31 days to fire some missiles against Libya. But In Rwanda, as many as 800,000 people were killed in 100 days of tribal war. And anyway, would cruise missiles have helped there, and how long would it have taken to put troops on the ground? And once there, what would they have done? Superheroes in Spandex and capes fly fast and they always know victims from villains without hesitation.

The real trouble with the humanitarian formulation now is that Libya is neither Bosnia nor Rwanda. Nor is it Egypt or Tunisia. Nor is it Iraq or Afghanistan, though the American policy sure has a lot of overtones from those last two places.

Moreover, it is a catastrophe that hasn’t happened yet. In fact, it looks to many reasonable people more like a civil war or perhaps a CIA-supported coup d’état. Libya does offer an especially convenient target for idealists, a dictator and terrorist who has no international constituency, a suitable opportunity for the exercise of moral outrage. He also seems to be vulnerable to a knockout punch from a bunch of missiles — the mythical limited war. But where’s the alternative to Qaddafi? If I were a jihadist, I’d be rushing to Libya at this very moment. After all it seems that we’re willing to arm and support anyone who holds up two fingers in the shape of a V, fires a rifle in the air and shouts about freedom and democracy.

It’s clear that war is good for some groups of people. Military officers win rapid promotions, businessmen make easy profits. Diplomats and spies become important and win renown. There are people who are drawn to the drama. This last group includes journalists and a peculiar group of intellectuals with personal agendas.

In 1988, the movie director Oliver Stone tried to explain to an interviewer his motives as a young hopeful writer:

I was really in a rush; I was afraid I would miss the war. All these generals were saying, “It’s almost over” and all that shit. So I went the fastest wave. I insisted on Infantry arid I insisted they send me to Vietnam. Not Korea or Germany, but Vietnam. April ’67, 1 got inducted at Fort Jackson; and, oddly enough, on September 14, 1967, the night before my 21st birthday, I got on the plane to Vietnam. I started smoking cigarettes on that fucking plane. To celebrate my manlihood.

Just another romantic idealist or two plying his trade.


Written by theunbiasedeye

April 4, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Posted in Global, Politics

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