Saturday, February 12, 2011

War in France and in the Pacific

Ian Buruma has written a review of Alan Riding's And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris. It appears in the February 24, 2011 edition of The New York Review of Books. Buruma entitles his review, "Who did not Collaborate?"

France had more thoroughly than any other Western Nation embraced an anarchic hatred of its own nation. In an interview 30 years later Sartre recalled, "In 1939, 1940 we were terrified of dying, suffering, for a cause that disgusted us. That is, for a disgusting France, corrupt, inefficient, racist, anti-Semite, run by the rich for the rich -- no one wanted to die for that, until, well, until we understood that the Nazis were worse."

Many in France did not believe the Nazis were worse. Of those who did not, women who had German lovers were dealt with most harshly after the war, but next came the writers. France more than the United States, certainly, revered its writers and those who used their talents to support the Nazi cause were later punished. The punishments would have continued to be meted out, but De Gaulle, fearing a civil war called an end to them.

Riding describes what we have read elsewhere, that the Resistance was virtually non-existence in the beginning. A few spoke out against the Nazis and were jailed -- most of them soon killed . Their efforts didn't accomplish much unless it was to convince others, later on, that there was a spirit of resistance somewhere in the French psyche. The Resistance didn't become popular until the French were convinced the Nazis were going to lose the war. After the Germans were on the run, the French flocked to the Resistance.

Was it unfair of the French courts to single out writers for punishment? "The journalist Jean Galtier-Boissiere, who had behaved impeccably during the war, thought that a person who lived by his pen should not be judged differently from a man who worked in a factory. He wrote: "Does one reproach the workers at Renault for making tanks for the Wehrmacht? Wasn't a tank more useful to the Fritz than an item in Le Petit Parisien?"

"But of course this is not how writers are traditionally viewed, least of all in France. Alan Riding ends his fascinating book by claiming that even in France the reverence for writers has faded, that 'politically speaking, artists and writers may now be less prominent,' which also makes them 'less dangerous.' He ascribes the loss of prestige to the failure of utopian visions, to the fact that writers 'no longer believe that ideas alone can resolve life's problems.'

"I'm not so sure about this," Buruma writes. "If so, it may well be a temporary phenomenon, a lull between the age of twentieth-century totalitarianism and different but perhaps equally lethal ideologies that will shape our future. Besides, Brasillach, among others, was doing more than spreading noxious ideas; he publically fingered Jews for arrest, and worse. If the history of occupied Paris teaches us anything, it is not that utopianism has ended but the illusion that writers and artists, even some of the best of them, have any special claim on courage, virtue, or morality. In that sense, they are no better or worse than the man building a tank in the Renault factory."

COMMENT: It is a serious matter when a nation loses its will to defend itself. Yes, there were and still are philosophical positions that justify anarchy and abject pacifism, but those writers who were executed after the war seem to have transitioned from "we French are worthless" to "the Germans are wonderful," and to have embraced the enemy even before he attacked.

Why are some in the U.S. behaving in much the same way? Eric Bergerud in his Touched with Fire, the Land War in the South Pacific, on page 427 in his section on Morale he wrote about the Australians and Americans, ". . . it was crucial to create armies where men would fight more or less willingly. To build an army like this, the officers did what they could to increase the group identification of the men. At the same time, they took great pains to make the day-by-day life of their soldiers tolerable. Neither task was easy. Powerful forces were constantly at work eroding morale and eating at the will to fight. Fear, exhaustion, and war weariness undermined patriotism and comradeship. Eventually, those forces would have brought all the armies to their knees. Fortunately for the Allies, the war was won before a crisis was reached."

Those "forces," as a consequence of World War I, had been at work for some time in France, and though it had a standing army which on paper looked capable of stopping the Germans, its will to fight had been eroded. Its morale had been eaten away. Fear, exhaustion and war weariness had undermined its patriotism and comradeship.

To a lesser extent, Vietnam was America's World War I. The "fear, exhaustion, and war weariness" occurred because that war was badly run -- as World War I was by France and Britain. Because World War I devastated France to a much greater extent than Vietnam harmed the U.S., Bergerud, Buruma and Riding would agree that France was in a much worse situation after their Vietnam than we were after ours. We abandoned the draft for Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps we have overtaxed our all-volunteer fighting forces, we they managed. To facilitate their efforts we have developed the most sophisticated and effective weapons for any fighting force in the world.

Many of those who have gone to the Middle East in multiple tours while tired of it are still much better off than the Marines, AIF, and Army who were told that they would remain in the South Pacific until that war was over -- at a time when the Allies had very little they could see in the way of an advantage. Many believed that the Japanese would win in New Guinea and at Guadalcanal. No one thinks our enemies can win against us today, not unless we let something like the self-hatred of the French take hold. The definitive war for us was World War II, perhaps especially the Pacific War against the Japanese, and not Vietnam.

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