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Why The Second World War was Fought

JFC Fuller was an interesting man. Did you know that he was a member of the British Fascist Party? Wikipedia told me that. Pretty neat, huh. Bet you didn’t even know there was a British Fascist Party. Bet you didn’t even know a man named JFC Fuller existed. I know of him. That makes me better than you.

That’s how internet debate works, no? It’s all about being the better man. Man A presents a thesis, the force of which doubtless reflected in the multitude of grammatical errors present. Man B counters with insult, vitriol, or at best a fact or series of facts followed by insult or vitriol. Sometimes Man C comes along to ask a snide question, or Man D blasts everyone with something entirely different but (more likely than not) of equal condescension. Knowledge in this context leads to arrogance, not understanding.

I’ve heard this state of debate lamented, as if it were unique; or at least as if the recent past could be held up as a better time, a Golden Age. Funny thing about golden ages: they’re bullshit. Hesiod was a bullshit artist, a storyteller. Like all men, he weaved a narrative that befit his view of things as he thought they ought to be. Everything fit just so. The world was made comfortable.

Obviously I am doing the same thing.

My narrative is thus: people fight, debate is a verbal extension of that combativeness, and when words fail, we resort to warfare. Generally speaking, by the time words fail, we’ve forgotten what it was we were originally arguing about. Read any YouTube comments section and you’ll likely find this to be the case. The original point of contention has been buried in heaps of bile, phlegm, all that is humorous in the human mind.

Think of World War Two as a giant YouTube comments thread. No one could remember, let alone agree upon, what was at stake, but everyone wanted to fight about it. Memories were conveniently short, erratic, inconsiderate. Germany invaded Poland to regain part of what was lost when she lost World War One, and as a first step towards Lebensraum. France and Britain came to Poland’s defense as an act of desperation following the fiasco of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Then followed a year of nothing from the Allies, nothing but movement and conquest on the part of the Germans. Then Germany invaded France, hoping to knock her out and preclude a second front festering her planned invasion of Russia. Italy entered the war hoping for the easy loot she failed to obtain during the last conflict.

France fell, leaving Britain alone. Churchill came to power and turned what had been a political war for the Allies into a religious one, a war of Freedom versus Nazism. Germany turned away from Britain, having no means of crossing the English Channel, and began her long war with Russia. She had already forgotten her fear of a two-front war. Britain joined with the USSR, already forgetting the fundamentals of her crusade. She convinced herself that in fighting German tyranny and hegemony, she could readily ally herself with a different tyrant and hegemon. Spain allied with Germany only insofar as her Catholicism wanted to crush the atheistic Soviets.

Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, hoping for a limited war to secure her economic interests against an America that has shown nothing but hostility towards an Asiatic power conquering her neighbors like a good European. In response, the US declared war on Japan, Germany declared war on the US, Japan struck at the British and the Dutch, and the Allies and the Axis solidified at last.

Then came the Atlantic Charter, wherein the Allies affirmed the principles of Freedom against those of tyranny. Britain and America had already forgotten the purges and famines of Stalin and his USSR. Soon thereafter, Unconditional Surrender was made the only mode by which victory might be attained. Poland, Pearl Harbor, politics itself were forgotten amidst the ardor of this crusade against Evil.

As the tide turned against Germany, she spoke less of her new Empire and instead propagandized once more about the evils of Communism. Nostalgia for the 1930s, when Nazism was seen as a bulwark against Communist aggression, could not stem the tide of Allied hatred. Germany was to be obliterated.

The comments thread ran deeper. Strategic bombing campaigns against Germany and later Japan came to fruition, allowing the Allies to butcher as many civilians as their Cause would allow. They had already forgotten the atrocities against which they fought. Hundreds of thousands were butchered, burned, rendered mute against the blast waves of a million tons of TNT. Technology being what it was, and the doctrines of aerial warfare being what they were, it was both far easier to bomb a city rather than a facility, and seen as far more effective, hitting both the economic and moral heart of the Enemy. The atomic bomb was the thousand-sunned climax of this strategy. Morality was forgotten in the rubble of expediency.

The war ended in more ruin than any other endeavor that has come down to us through the gory pages of recorded history. Germany, Japan, Italy lay in smoking ruin. Eastern and Central Europe bore the scars of the largest battles ever fought, and of the most mechanically deliberate extermination ever attempted. Britain, though bloodied, received but a fraction of the civilian destruction she inflicted upon her enemies. America had to sustain more discomfort from her own government than from her foes. Western Russia was the mass grave of nationalism and national socialism.

Why was the war fought? The reasons changed with the context. First Lebensraum and Poland; then Freedom and Justice; national  or economic survival; to fight the scourge of Communism, because winning is always better than losing…By 1945, the only country with a clear political objective was Russia, and that objective was achieved, namely that of carving its own empire out of the little corpses that dotted the map of Eastern Europe. The threat of German dominance was replaced by the reality of Russian.

But that is not to say that the Crusade against Evil was a failure. It was, but not because Russia came out at the top of the political heap. Stalin was a shrewder statesman than any of his peers, matching his guile, patience, and foresight against Hitler’s religiously confident audacity, Churchill’s skill with words, and Roosevelt’s knack for democratic politics. Stalin had a clear, realizable objective and he obtained it. That is the point of war. It is argument by other means. The eradication of evil is not a realistic objective, because that evil resides within the human heart itself. Only nuclear holocaust would gain us that objective.

The Crusade against Evil was lost the moment it was conceived, because that is not the purview of war. Now, as it happens, this unrealistic war did have one moral consequence the import of which cannot be forgotten. It stopped the Holocaust. It is tempting to think that, once Greater Germania had been liquidated of undesirables,  this mechanized butchery would have ceased. Perhaps. Then again, perhaps, with the economic strength of a united Europe and the sense of destiny born of a hundred stupendous victories, the successors of Hitler, raised on Goebbels’ propaganda, would have tried far worse. It seems better, at least given the limited time with which he have been able to judge the result, to have weathered the iron curtain than it might have been had Europe had to endure the brick oven.

Short of annihilation, how might humans eradicate evil from their hearts? I doubt it can be done. Emotion is the stuff of life, for better and for worse. Without love, life would seem to be pointless. Of course I am biased. The flip side, however, is hatred. It does not seem possible to have one without the other, our emotions being so intricately tied together. As long as we are individual, we will have points of view; as long as we emote, we will want to defend those points of view beyond the bounds of dry logic; as long as we wish to defend even that which might be incorrect to the “objective observer,” should such a vantage exist, we will eventually come to blows. And whether those blows come in the form of internet sass or Zyclon B, it will be the product of the human psyche.

And I still know who JFC Fuller was.

On the Romantic Erasure of Jewish Identity, and Other Erotic Sundries

I read an article today by a Jewish woman lambasting a work of romantic fiction written by a Christian woman. The gist of the reviled book is that a Jewish girl is taken under the wing of a concentration camp commandant, they fall in love, and in the end they convert to Christianity and save Jews from the Nazi maw. Something like that.

The reviewer in question was utterly outraged, first that a non-Jew was even writing from the perspective of a Jewish woman; second that any redemption could be had by any Nazi but especially the commander of a concentration camp; three that such dross has a right to be published at all. I disagree, albeit respectfully, with each of these concerns.

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My first and paramount disagreement is that an outsider cannot, ought not write about the perspective of another–in this case, and it is an extreme case, about the seminal tragedy of the Jewish people: the Holocaust. Emotionally, this subject is notable for several reasons, its close proximity to the present day, its enormity, the methodicalness with which it was carried out, the unparalleled historical evidence for its breadth, sadism, and efficiency…No event in recorded history can match the Holocaust in pints of blood or reams of paper. Controversy is inevitable.

That a Jew is insulted, enraged, baffled, betrayed at the sight of a romance set during this time is understandable. I as an outsider in every way, when I put my mind to it, can imagine the intellectual outrage, create my own sense of emotional distress, work up an appetite for blood. Are my emotions a mere echo, a mimicry, a farce of the genuine article? There is no objective way to know. I suspect that the immediacy of my recreation soon wears off, while her emotions linger. I suspect that her reaction is stronger than mine, more concentrated. I suspect that both are personal, although in differing ways. Both are real, in the sense of being experienced, although clearly hers are the more intense. It is a matter of degrees, I think, and not of validity.

And regardless of degree, both require honesty. She needs to be honest in the use of her memory, a tricky device and prone to error, exaggeration, and outright fabrication. I, experiencing second hand, need to be honest in my humility and genuine in my attempt to research and grapple with something outside my immediate sensory experience. Both have their flaws and limitations. Both are acts of constructing order out of chaotic data.

Her criticism strikes at the very heart of what I believe the point of writing is. I approach fiction much like I approach history, as a process by which empathy is had for my fellow man. Rousseau was not wrong in surmising that pitie is a natural part of the human mind, but it dulls in the face of competition, rivalry, jealousy. Sometimes it disappears altogether, at least functionally.

Great fiction (and history in this sense is fiction because the historical narrative is a product of the imagination), effective fiction, is empathetic. It is the author’s admission that his is not the only perspective, that even through his own prejudices and limitations (necessary to the creative process as they are) he can see that there are other stories than his own, other perspectives than the one he assumes to be correct on a daily basis, other modes of thought and being than the ones that he finds comfortable and natural.

It is an imperfect process to be sure. I can never know what it was like to be in the Holocaust, either as guard or as condemned, ditto for growing up in a Jewish family in the wake of that cataclysm. But I can imagine. I can surmise. And I can honestly put myself into the shoes of another, doing my best to see what she sees, breath what she breathes, think what she thinks. In doing so, I will never be able to recreate the objective reality of the past. Fiction cannot do that; history cannot either (nor memory, if we’re being honest). I can, however, recreate at least a semblance of the subjectivity of the human creature.

When done in good faith (and careful research is a prerequisite to this fidelity), fiction is a way for the subjective to bend, expand, look upon itself. In this way our common humanity is better understood–and our differences (in opinion, in custom, in disposition) are made rational, are made understandable to the outsider.

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Now, what of redemption? I should first mention that the Christian idea of redemption makes sense in this context. All can be saved if they only embrace the Truth that is Jesus Christ. In so doing, they shed their pride and thus deserve (earn, are given–depending on your theology) salvation. A counter-intuitive notion, to be sure, and one that Christians have trouble putting into practice (witness the hatred felt towards child molesters, as an example), but an ideal of many Christian denominations it certainly is.

So, that a Christian author would find the idea that a Nazi could be redeemed plausible and indeed quite compelling as an exemplar for the power of God to forgive all his creations, is not an irrational turn of events. Nor is it strange that a Jew would take umbrage at this. The Jewish God is not so loving as the Christian, and the tone of His interaction with the world shifts radically from the Old to the New Testament. The two perspectives are so radically different as to make compromise practically impossible.

Theology aside, I believe that all people deserve redemption in the historical sense of that word. What I mean is, as a historian, it is my duty to throw my imagination into the perspective of anyone that becomes my subject of study, regardless of their thoughts or actions. It is the closest thing I can do to allowing my subject the objectivity–the lack of unconscious or irrationally strong bias–that makes for genuine, honest history, that is to say history done in good faith.

It is in this way that we lose the temptation to grind axes, vomit polemics, or pass vitriol off as scholarship. In this way we judiciously, carefully weave our prejudices into the fabric of the work, balancing them as best we can against whatever facts we unearth. No bias can be totally erased, but it can be tempered. In that equilibrium resides an honest picture of the past–not complete, but a valiant effort in that direction.

Historical redemption is also a humanizing activity. It reminds us, by forcing us to look at the motivations behind what we presently consider the most heinous acts, that it is not a monster we are studying. It is not a demon that has attracted our historical curiosity, who begs for our historical judgment. Our subject is nothing as special as all that. It is merely a man, with a man’s strengths, a man’s motivations, a man’s imperfections.

Morally, it whispers into our presently arrogant ear that we, as humans like once they were, have the same potential for good and for ill, that the actions that we take will have consequences–intended or no–just as theirs did, that the future will judge our actions with as much narrowness of perspective as we now judge our progenitors.

Whatever their reasons were, the Nazis perpetrated the worst slaughter that recorded history has preserved. This should sober us, terrify us to the reality of human motivation: that given enough energy, we can justify anything. Being reminded of that, we of the present should show the caution and restraint so seldom seen by those whom we claim to have bettered. We are our past. Those people were and are us. Their mistakes were ours, the mistakes of the race. Only when we own up to them, our wrong-doings, can we internalize them, learn from them, possibly outgrow them. History is a laboratory experiment 1000 generations running. We are as much lab rats today as in the days of Hammurabi. After so much trial and error, will we ever escape this maze?

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My final quibble is with the idea that such a work as this, being insensitive to a minority community, being historically ignorant, being racist in its erasure of Jewish identity by a Christian one, ought not have the right to be published at all. My gut reaction to such a statement is horror. After all, the first amendment is what allows me to write whatever I want without fear of recourse. It has its limits, libel for instance, but realistically my speech seems freer than at any other time or place in recorded history. The majority will always find ways to silence the minority, but the official response is so ridiculously weak that I have no fear of having the hammer of the law smite me for what I put to print.

The question becomes is that a good thing? The outraged author to whom I am responding says that such fiction as this is dangerous in its ability to nullify the identity of another. She is rightfully concerned that free speech is dangerous. It certainly is. Freedom is fraught with danger. Do the benefits outweigh these?

I am inclined to say yes.

Philosophically, or perhaps politically, a free exchange of ideas seems of genuine practical value, for it–hopefully–results in a weeding out of the less-well-thought-out stuff, and through the continual editorial process of criticism and response, would yield something better. But this seems hard to quantify, or to prove.

I will say that the potential allotted to a people possessed of free speech seems more fraught with peril, but also so much higher, than a people trammeled with the safety of a controlled mind. Strife breeds necessity, and necessity creativity. And there is no place where creativity is more necessary than in the products of the human imagination.

So there it is, a respectful disagreement. Can the internet handle such a thing? …And there I am being self-righteous. We can all breath a collective sigh of relief.

Seated, a Short Story

Seat 4C was new, polished, virgin. The room around it was new as well; new construction, new paint, new stage, new philosophy. This was the auditorium of the new high school. It was to be a place of learning and discussion. It was to be a place where generations came to be forged.

Creaking open for the first time, the seat welcomed its first sitter, a snarled young man, assailed by anxiety, acne, by arrogance, impertinence, and fear. He fidgeted annoyingly, unable to get comfortable despite the seat’s best efforts. It desired only to content him.

The lights dimmed, and the presentation began. The assembly, the first in what was heralded as a new series of intelligent, thought-provoking lectures, was about the dangers of nuclear war. A short video of president Ford was followed by a speaker who bade the students to take seriously the possibilities of MAD, to work to a brighter tomorrow, to make sure that the human race continued to exist. The sitter seemed little interested in the substance of the speech.

Much to the seat’s disappointment, the sitters all seemed generally to be alike. They oozed oil. They smelled bad. They could not sit still. The seat wondered if this was the case wherever young people had to sit down. Quickly, then, the seat’s memory for sitters blurred and grew indistinct.

Its memory for lectures, however, was a little sharper. There were several it would never forget. There was one about the dangers of fossil fuels, the evils of something called OPEC, and the desire for the whole world to embrace alternative energy; there was one about the imperialism of the Soviet Union; one about the prospects for peace with the collapse of the Berlin Wall; one about the dangers of drug use; about how to use the internet safely; about the threat of Muslim terrorism; about school shootings. At first 4C did not understand much of what was talked about, but over time its knowledge grew. As the decades passed, it became something of an expert in international geo-politics.

The years passed, the lectures changed, and the students remained the same. The seat noticed, with some confusion, that it didn’t matter what was being talked about; the sitters did not care. It reminded itself that it was but a lowly chair, that its view was narrow, limited. But after 40 years of sitters coming and going, it came to think its opinion on the matter accurate indeed.

In talking with its neighbors, its opinions were confirmed. Their sitters, too, could never get comfortable, could never pay attention; they slouched, dozed, sunk deep into their seats–all much to the seats’ consternation.

One day, after the end of an especially long assembly concerning the dangers of cyber bullying (4C never ceased to be astounded at the variety of topics that filled its auditorium), 4C found itself unable to return to its upright, resting position. Weeks passed, and the problem did not go away. Eventually, two burly men in overalls came to inspect it. They spoke in low voices, slurred by diets enriched by far too much red meat. 4C disliked seating such folk. They hurt.

Presently, however, it was concerned with what they were saying. They spoke of replacement. Whatever its diagnosis, the damage seemed to these two gentlemen to be irreparable. The seat would have to be torn out and replaced by a new one. The earliest this could possibly be done, they assured each other, was the beginning of next week. Four days from now.

4C trembled at the thought. It could not fathom what was going to happen to it. Where would it go? Who would sit on it? It creaked and pushed such thoughts off to one side. Desperately, it sought distraction from this existential crisis. It turned back towards the chief mystery of its long life, that of the human teenager. It wondered why, of all the important topics that had been covered here over the years, not one had drawn the concentration of anyone. More pressing matters nagged at the limits of the seat’s mind, but it brushed them aside, pondering instead the quandary that was the human attention span.

Three days later, in the quiet hours of the morning, 4C found itself prematurely torn from its universe. Two men came with tools. They showed no sympathy for the chair’s lost life; they did not bat an eyelash at its painful divorce. Unceremoniously, they wrenched 4C from its home of 40 years and carried it to the back of a truck.

They had caught the chair totally unawares. It had no time to come to terms with its life, with what it had done and left undone, with those it had seated and those left without a seat, with the great mysteries that it would never solve.

The afterlife was nothing like anything 4C had imagined. The air was colder. The world bumpier. The light varied and exceedingly bright. Then, all of the sudden, there was darkness. Then light. Then heat. Annihilating heat.

The Supreme Court Does Things

The Supreme Court did a few things in the past, oh I don’t even know, that have people all in a huff. Somehow, I really don’t care very much; why might that be?

Having attended one of the most agonizingly, nauseatingly politically active schools ever ever; and having received from said school a thorough and, I would like to think, robust education; and further having had a history of interest in political problems, quandaries, and endeavors, one would think that, now that I am out of school and basically a real human being, I’d be all into politics.

Well I’m not.

This is because I have read too much history. Thanks Thucydides, Polybius, Eusebius; thanks Bede, Michael Psellos, Anna Comnena; great job Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Gibbon, Carlyle; way to go Durant, Foucault, Churchill, Max Hastings. You guys have ruined politics for me, at least for now.

How?

Because through reading all these myriad chronicles of human debauchery, triumph, decline, warfare, foible, wickedness, ingenuity, nefariousness, cowardice, strength, idiocy, and thoughtfulness, I’ve come to the conclusion that no matter how great things get, and no matter how dire things seem, they are, as General Slim said, better than you think, worse than you want.

My problem with politics is that it is, almost by definition, hyperbolic. Every issue, talking point, or scandal is the worst thing ever, the greatest threat to mankind or freedom or what, kittens? that the world has ever faced. Or put the other way, every “good” candidate or proposed law is the harbinger of peace on earth and the fumbling beginnings of a world made of sourpatch kids and sunshine.

How’s about we all take a step back, huh? Augustine wrote City of God at least in part because he saw the world around him collapsing in the face of barbarian hordes, and he wanted to assure both himself and his congregation that, even if that were true, so what? The kingdom of God is what mattered, anyhow. Now, as it turned out, things did not end. Quite the contrary, despite what hyperbolic historians of the day asserted, things very much continued. Humanity continued to prosper or perish. It just so happened that, all physical things being subject to change, different groups prospered whilst others, hitherto those prospering, more often perished. The Dark Ages, so called, weren’t very dark for the Muslim world, after all; and, so far as we can ascertain given history’s imperfect methods, apparently weren’t all that dark for western Europe either. It just depends on who you ask.

I think back to examples like that, or the fall of Constantinople, or the inauguration of the First World War, whenever a pundit screams at me that things are on the rain-slick precipice of darkness, only one slip away from the hungry maw of decadence, regression, poverty, whatever, and say to myself: “Things could always be worse, they could always be better; and I think humanity will go on failing beautifully regardless of the next president. All I can do is adapt and not complain so damn much.”

Such a view certainly makes me a pretty piss poor Active Citizen. I am not convinced that is such a bad thing. An active and involved citizenry can be a pretty dangerous thing. Here’s looking at you, 8th century Byzantium.

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