Monday, August 10, 2015

We forget the wars we don't fight

  

   
     Whenever anyone speaks of "American exceptionalism," the wilted notion that the United States has a special greatness, a divine destiny even, I try to point out that feeling really, really good about yourself and your homeland, and dismissing anything negative about it, is not itself a sign of greatness. Exceptionalism gets trotted out, lately, while attacking Barack Obama, for occasionally suggesting that sometimes our country has stumbled. It has stumbled because every country has, and only tinpot dictatorships insist otherwise. Nations with the most shameful histories of undeniable atrocity, like Japan and China, are also loudest when insisting on their own superiority.
     What America undeniably is, I believe, is lucky. Founded on a vast continent, rich with resources, guarded only by a scattered, indigenous people susceptible to both smallpox and gunpowder, it was located in the right place. Blessed by the right leaders, like George Washington, who could have been king, or at least more kingly than he was. Or Abraham Lincoln, who bound our nation together when it broke apart.
     Franklin D. Roosevelt also saved our country. If you look at the era he was in, the tyrants it spawned—Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini—FDR could have easily led the country down the wrong path. Anyone who read Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America," a novel imagining that Lindbergh was elected president instead of FDR, knows how chillingly plausible it is that America could have gone another way in the 1930s.
     But we didn't. We had Roosevelt, and he prodded a nation all too happy to let Lindbergh's friends, the Nazis have Europe to get behind that last bastion of democracy, Great Britain.
     FDR spoke so well--true, in a high pitched voice that would never fly today. But he had the right words. Winston Churchill rightly gets the fame as an orator. But FDR could turn a phrase, one of which has vibrated in the back of my mind while assessing the nuclear deal with Iran.
     "No man can turn a tiger into a kitten by stroking it," Roosevelt said, on his Dec. 29, 1940 "Fireside chat" radio address. He was talking about the need to arm Britain and resist Germnay. "The experience of the past two years has proven beyond doubt that no nation can appease the Nazis."
     That line alone was almost enough to make me doubt any pact with Iran. You can't pet the problem away. Their nature will not change.
     But a metaphor only goes so far. Are the Iranians the Nazis, an implacable force, bent on domination and death, even when that means its own ultimate destruction? They don't seem to be. The Republicans argue we can't make a deal with Iran because they can't be trusted, though the GOP suddenly trusts them plenty whenever they make a wild threat against Israel. Wild threats against Israel are what its neighboring nations do. It keeps their people distracted. We can't fight them all over it.
     Iran with a bomb would have to be insane to attack Israel, which has nuclear armed submarines for the purpose of turning any nation that nukes it into a sheet of fused glass.
     Far more likely that any bomb the Iranians develop will be passed on to their terrorist pals, put on one of the countless containers that are waved into American ports every day, and be detonated there. We should worry about ourselves more than Israel.
     What to do? Our three options are 1) attack Iran before they finish their bomb; 2) keep applying severe economic sanctions or 3) come to a deal to limit their atomic development. The Israelis itch for Option #1. The US assembled a coalition that implemented #2 which didn't solve the problem. So now, if Congress approves next month, we'll try #3.
     If it fails, well, lots of crazy, anti-American regimes have nuclear weapons, from Russia to North Korea to Pakistan. , They threaten people left and right, just like the Iranians, but never pulls the trigger. A war might stop them, but then in the you-break-it-you-bought-it dynamic in Afghanistan and Iraq, we'll own Iran too, and there just aren't enough U.S. troops or dollars to do that.
     Getting back to the idea of being lucky with leaders, we've had wars dangled at us before over nations getting nukes that shouldn't. Remember the Cuban Missile Crisis? Remember the war between the Soviets that took place in 1962? Of course you don't. Wars a lot more memorable than peace. Which is why we're still flipping through the dog-eared World War II playbook to guide ourselves, when we should consider John F. Kennedy's walk-away-from-the-war two step, which worked great. His generals were clamping at the bit to attack the Ruskies. Kennedy said no. Its the greatest thing he ever did. We don't remember the wars we didn't fight as clearly as the wars we did, but maybe we should try harder to keep them in mind.

28 comments:

  1. There are a lot of points to cover here. We may be a bit wilted but I think it's okay to think our nation was great.

    It's so true about FDR doing some great things for the people and bringing about needed reforms.

    It's no surprise the Republicans are saying this Iran deal is wrong. It doesn't give their pals arms maker and military equipment makers big contracts.

    As for Kennedy, some theories say it was the military that wanted him out of the way. He wasn't gung ho enough for them and wouldn't expand in Vietnam.

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  2. All the great empires and nations had their big and then waned some.

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  3. In 1962, I was stationed at Tongue Point, Oregon, where a mothball fleet was parked. Walking by the television room, I heard a deep voice intone, "All uniformed personnel..." And my heart stopped. And then restarted when the voice continued and it became clear that the message was for some local police or fire department. Many things could have come out differently had different people been in charge. I tend to think that what has happened in our past was inevitable, fate perhaps, our deserved good luck. Thanks for pointing out that it also depended on people such as Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy.

    john

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    1. Interesting story, John, thanks for sharing.

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  4. Anyone that thinks the nukes that disappeared from the Soviet bloc breakup are all present and accounted for is dillusional....I'd bet the Iranians already have the weapons, but certainly can't announce that to the world. Why do we feel it's in our best interests to continually antagonize the Middle East?

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    1. So they don't annihilate Israel and we don't want Arabs taking over our oil interests so have to meddle in their nations.

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    2. If Iran already had the bomb why wouldn't they crow about it to the world?

      In any case, you can't "have" a nuclear weapon until you know it works. That means you have to test it, and those tests are not something you can keep secret.

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  5. Saying we've been lucky in matters of war an peace might seem crass, but it was demonstrated to me, although I was too young to appreciate the lesson, when I reported for duty in Germany some ten years after WW II ended and after its memory had already faded here. Many of the Germans I met were starting life over after having been displaced from "the East, " and the lady who cleaned our quarters asked for a week off because her husband was returning from imprisonment in the Soviet Union.

    When I was moved to London a few months latter, I found it an even more austere place and memories of the war still vivid in big and small ways. I often went to the movies to escape the chill of a rented room inadequately warmed by a small gas fire and recall a film set in London during "the second Blitz," when the V1's and V2's started coming over. The V1 was particularly terrifying because it's pulse-jet engine could be heard all over the city and people knew that shortly after the sound stopped there would be a devastating explosion. When that happened during the film a little lady sitting next to me grabbed my arm.

    Your last sentence, about celebrating wars we didn't fight, was most apt. Some wars seem unavoidable, but people who look to them as simple and decisive solutions to international problems might take heed of something said by that soldier's soldier, the Duke of Wellington: "Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won."

    Tom Evans

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    1. Tom,

      Yes, unless one was at Pearl Harbor, we didn't know those horrors here. The 2 oceans apart were a big help at that time. My parents spent their pre-teens/early teens in WW2 running for shelter when the sirens went off and worried if they could get old auntie out in time, down the block. First they worried about the Amer. and Brits, later of course they embraced Americans. The Germans did some nasty things in northern or central Italy, terrorizing small towns asking for who informants were. Luckily, my folks were in the south and didn't see one in their area. Mussolini's alliance with Hitler was his ruin. On some domestic things like bringing law and order to the towns, he was okay. That's something usually not found in general history books. However,there was anti-Semitism with his policies but not to the extent of Germany. Still, that's no excuse.

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    2. For a glimpse into what it was like for people north of Rome after the truce, as the Germans were retreating though their land up the peninsula, read Iris Origo's memoire "War in the Val d'Orchia." Life was very complicated as they had to deal with the German's, the Faschisti of Mussolini's puppet republic, the communist partisans, the non-communist partisans and the British and American forces. Getting shot for helping escaping allied prisoners was a fairly common occurrence.

      Tom

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  6. A trenchant analysis, indeed, NS. For those who think "they're all the same, so why bother voting?", it might be worth pointing out that Iran, at this point, already likely qualifies as a war we didn't fight. Does anybody really believe that if John "Bomb, Bomb Iran" McCain had been elected in 2008 that this painstaking diplomatic approach, given its necessarily uncertain outcome, would have been so assiduously pursued? The fact that wars also have very uncertain outcomes never seems to be highlighted as readily by those beholden to the military-industrial complex as they rattle their sabers. History can be very instructive, but what happened in Munich in 1938 and thereafter is not the all-purpose analogy that many on the Right seem to want to use it as.

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  7. Agree that McCain would have been a warmonger. Still, he didn't deserve the comments he got from Trump.

    Speaking of which- does he really think the super holy, religious right is going to vote for him with his adultery and divorces? And he's no church goer, as far as I know.

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    1. Methinks the "super holy, religious right" has been overrated as a political force.

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    2. I hope you are right, Scribe but they at times have broken some moderate Republicans for the Senate, House or in gubernatorial or state races, esp. in the south.

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    3. If Trump gets the nomination all he'll have to do is: cry, say he's sorry for having sinned and announce he has accepted Jesus Christ as his lord and savior. It has worked before.

      W.R.

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    4. None of that ever seemed to bother the supporters of Newt Gingrich.

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  8. If we go to war with Iran, then what? Nobody seems to have an answer to this question, which is to occupy three of the largest countries in the Middle East. Who's next on the list?

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  9. good point, Wendy

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  10. I haven't seen any explanation why option 2 is being abandoned. The President is saying we either have to negotiate an agreement to limit Iran's nuclear development or go to war. On the other hand, there's quite a few members of Congress that are in favor of maintaining the current economic sanctions. I haven't heard of anyone in Congress saying we need to go to war.

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    1. What those distinguish members disregard is that sanctions only brought Iran to the table because we persuaded Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China to go along with enforcing them. That seems to be done now. A recent piece in The Guardian reports that British, French and German businessmen are all heading to Tehran in order to get in line for getting a piece of the business action. God knows what the Russians and Chinese are up to. If we stay out of the agreement what we will be left with will be weak (U.S. only, just like Cuba) sanctions and little incentive for the rest of the international community to work on limiting the Iranian nuclear program. Those other countries either don't care about Israel or think Israel, which is a nuclear power, can look out for itself.

      Tom Evans

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    2. Yes, Tom, that's what opponents keep forgetting. When Scott Walker is reminded of it he keeps saying he'll "persuade" the allies to put sanctions back in place. I have no idea why he thinks he's so irresistibly persuasive.

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    3. Walker has nil experience in foreign policy.

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  11. Sanctions haven't worked and won't work. Only the poor are affected by them. Those well off there will get what they need anyhow in a roundabout way. It won't affect the governing class.

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  12. Even if our govt is freezing assets or stopping investment there, it's just stalling.

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  13. Knowing what we know now, there's every reason to believe that if Kennedy had gone a different way on the Cuban Missile Crisis, there wouldn't be anyone around to remember it at all.

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  14. All bullshit aside Neil Americans 80-20 are STRONGLY opposed to military action against Iran. North Korea is far more dangerous and brags about it's nukes. There is only 1 country in the world that wants war with Iran and that's the Phillipines.

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  15. If I were the Republicans, I would go with this deal. After all, the minute Iran missteps (which they claim is inevitable), they could call for the war they and Israel so desperately want.

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