June 6, 2004
Thousands of days before D-Day
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As the imperial propaganda exploiting the 60th anniversary of the Normandy invasion grinds on, I'm commemorating my first viewing of the great antiwar movie "Gallipoli." During the scene in which we are first brought to the front, and we first hear the machine-guns hammering, a young woman sitting behind me turned to her companion and whispered, "Wait a minute! Australians fighting Turks?! I don't understand!"
That moviegoer's knowledge of the First World War may have been defective, but there didn't seem to be anything wrong with her nose for irony.
The ironies of imperialism are also evident in a favorite little scene of mine that comes earlier in the movie. A couple of the chief Australian characters (one of them played by Mr. Mel Gibson, I believe) are trekking across one of Australia's vast sun-baked deserts, and they come across a grizzled old prospector. (Sorry for the cliché, but it works well in this joke.) In the course of conversation the two youngsters mention that they're going to join up to fight the Germans and help out the Empire. The prospector ruminates on that for a moment, squinting in the sunlight and stroking his beard, and finally declares: "I knew a German once."
In war, as in all historical events, things are connected, and one thing leads to another. Sometimes things lead, by a long chain of connections, to strange, distant, and absurd places. Australian soldiers fetch up in the Ottoman Empire; German soldiers fetch up in Egypt; American soldiers fetch up in Iraq. My reading of history has taught me that it is under empire and leviathan that things lead to the strangest, most distant, and most absurd destinations. At least from the standpoint of the ruled; our rulers seem to consider those places quite normal.
Thomas Sowell, in a column the other day, compared the suck-it-up attitude purported to be prevalent during the Good War of the '40s to the impatience and childishness of us naysayers during the current Good War in Iraq. Sowell wrote that no one in the heroic days of June 1944 would have dared whimper, "It's a quagmire! We should pull out!" when the Normandy landings failed to produce an immediate ceremonial procession to Berlin and led instead to a grim and gory struggle. Now, it certainly wasn't Sowell's first pro-war, pro-empire column sad to say but it did clearly demonstrate the limits of Mr. Sowell. And on more than one front.
The moviegoer behind me at "Gallipoli" seemed relatively ignorant about World War One in particular; but Sowell seems ignorant about war in general if we can take as a sign of ignorance the inability to make basic distinctions. Set aside all of our libertarian antiwar analysis for a moment. Can Sowell really not distinguish between a mass, conventional assault on an entrenched, conventional enemy, on the one hand, and an amorphous, protracted war of insurgency in the context of an unpopular occupation, on the other? Sowell would have come closer to the mark if he had compared the war of suppression in Iraq with the Germans' war of suppression against partisans behind the Eastern Front. That part of the Germans' war wasn't very successful, and its prospects weren't very bright no matter what happened at the actual front. But of course that comparison would have blown Sowell's hobby-horse into matchsticks and splinters.
If I may move to distinctively libertarian analysis, Sowell's column also demonstrates the inherent limitations of the conservative ideology (such as it is). When he has tended to his knitting, so to speak, Sowell has done such good work! on culture as it relates to economics, on the necessity of private property and the free market, on the destructiveness of government intervention, and more irony here on the evil effects of ideologies unconnected to reality. This is the man who wrote The Vision of the Anointed and The Quest for Cosmic Justice! Is it possible, then, that he has never digested Robert Higgs's Crisis and Leviathan? That his grasp of modern history is so feeble that he fails to understand that empire abroad leads to leviathan at home?
It's disappointing, even disturbing, to see Tom Sowell descend to propaganda journalism in defense of a regime that one would have thought was repugnant to him in most of its aspects. One might have expected him to leave that kind of muck-spreading to Charles Krauthammer & Co.
I shall lay off stonking Sowell for a bit and start pounding a more-general target: the archetypal war fan. People of that breed still seem to surround us, despite what the pollsters say about the collapsing support for Little Bush's War. I'm verging on a bit of caricature here, to be sure, but I really wouldn't be surprised if such a war fan were to ask me, OK, then, Mr. Smarty-Pants Libertarian, if you were Eisenhower on June 5, you would have canceled Operation Overlord, right?
The very nature of history of men acting throughout time, where one thing leads to another seems to escape these war fans. Needless to say, I wouldn't have been Eisenhower. But if I had been an ordinary GI forced, at gunpoint, to participate in the invasion, I certainly would have wondered what bizarre chain of events had led me, a Midwestern American, to be kidnapped, transported across the sea. and obliged to storm a beach in a quasi-French province of France that was defended by Germans. And not only by Germans. To my astonishment I might have been obliged to fire in the general direction of anti-Soviet Georgians, Kirghiz, Uzbeks even Koreans and Tibetans who had somehow been swept up into the Wehrmacht by the tornado of war.
I would have wondered, too, how it came to be that the continental ally of "my" nation was the Soviet Union. It had to be plain enough, to any non-moron, that the kindly Stalin and his benevolent progressive reformers were going to be in a fine position to take over Eastern and much of Central Europe after the war. Is that part of what I would have been fighting for? If so I would have wanted to know why.
The destruction of the Wehrmacht's weakened Army Group Center by the Red Army in the summer of 1944 drew the Soviets westward, but so did the Normandy invasion and the Anglo-American strategic bombing. In fact part of the reason Army Group Center was so weak was that much of its armor was in northern France, and many of its tank-busting 88mm guns had to be devoted to the anti-aircraft role at home.
I've heard much latter-day chatter about how the Western Allies had to invade Europe in order to keep the Red Army from reaching the English Channel. However, none of the contemporary accounts I've read and I've read a lot of them suggest that anyone was thinking in those terms in 1944. Stalin and his generals certainly weren't. On June 6 they didn't snap their fingers and say, Nuts! Now we'll never make it to the English Channel! Quite the contrary. Since June 22, 1941, they had been desperately importuning the Anglo-Americans to invade Western Europe, and they were desperately happy to see the invasion finally take place.
The Red-Army-on-the-Channel scenario, which was popularized on the History Channel by the late Stephen Ambrose, is often premised not on a non-occurrence of the invasion but rather on its defeat. That's a version slightly more sophisticated than one in which Eisenhower is converted to noninterventionism on the eve of Overlord and stops the operation in its tracks. And it may make the "Red Channel" result look a little more likely. But noninterventionists no more call for operations to be mounted and then defeated than they call for magical overnight conversions. We call for certain policies to be avoided. In the case at hand we did call from the beginning for the United State to stay out of the war altogether.
If that had happened, it's doubtful that Montgomery (without all those Sherman tanks he got at just the right time) would have been able to push Rommel all the way to Tunisia in the fall of 1942; and in any case it would have been impossible for the British to have mounted Operation Torch the invasion of northwest Africa all by themselves. No Operation Torch, no invasion of Sicily; no invasion of Sicily, no invasion of Italy; and, overall, no diversion of considerable German resources to a Southern Front in the summer of 1943, away from the Eastern Front.
Considerably more crucial was direct American aid to the Soviets. Tens of thousands of American trucks and jeeps gave the Red Army a mobility that it could not otherwise have hoped to approach.
Without American entry into the war, it appears certain that the stop-line for the Red Army would have been far east of the English Channel probably a respectable distance east of Berlin, for that matter.
War fans insisting that antiwar people answer their simple-minded question about What "We" Should Have Done in World War II deserve a simple answer Stay out! but they really ought to look at more of history than just the chapters covering June 6, 1944, and December 7, 1941. In history one thing leads to another. And it's impossible to understand anything about the second great war without confronting the first great war. World War I brimmed with catastrophes Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele, Galicia on the Eastern Front but despite the unprecedented scale of those state-massacres the worst catastrophe, in terms of long-term effect, was the entry of the United State into the evil madness. That intervention led straight to Lenin, Hitler, and Stalin, and also greased the skids leading to the Great Depression of the 1930s. At home Wilson's foreign intervention created an upsurge of totalitarianism, great and petty, that, to put it mildly, we've never gotten over.
As anyone knows who has read Robert Higgs.
Thousands of days led up to D-Day, and thousands of days led up to U.S. entry into the first war in April 1917. Men not "forces" make history, but influential men make more of it than the rest of us do; and evil, power-hungry men of influence in America and other countries had set the stage for the 20th century's great clashes of empire thousands of days before that murder-shadowed century began.
What nightmarish horror dramas are they setting the stage for now? It would be a mercy if more men of powerful mind, including the distinguished Mr. Sowell, started paying attention.
June 6, 2004
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